Friday, September 30, 2005

On Children's Aspirations Part II

In my previous post, Mississippi Fred McDowell made the following comment:

>He looked at her and said "We had hopes that he'd aspire to be a Rosh Yeshiva."

This is exactly the kind of stale thinking that Eliezer Berkovitz deplored, particularly in his history of Halakhah, "Lo Bashamayim Hi". He points out that in a real society there simply must--must!--be doctors as well as sanitation workers as well as scholars as well as even artists and poets--and zoologists too. The Torah envisions us as having a real society. Sadly, to many in leadership positions like your son's principal don't get that.

Truthfully, it doesn't take Eliezer Berkovitz to tell you that a society can't have *everyone* doing the same thing. Even in primitive hunter-gatherer societies, where the vast majority of the population of any given group *did*, in fact, hunt and gather, you still had some specialists who performed other necessary tasks. This is all the moreso in the non-hunter-gatherer society that we live in.

The problem, as I see it, is that much of the Chariedi Yeshiva world wants it both ways - they want to be isolated and have their own community free from the influence of the "outside world" and yet, still be able to have Torah as everyone's occupation. They look back at Jewish history and read Midrashim on the existence of the Jews in the wilderness, where they spent all their time learning Torah (taking, for the sake of argument, that this is factual) and all their needs were taken care of by heaven.

Unfortunately, we don't live in that sort of world. We don't have manna coming down from heaven to provide us with food. Our clothes and our shoes do, indeed, wear out. We don't have heavenly clouds to provide shelter for us. We have to go out and earn our living by the sweat of our brow. And this is all well within the guidelines of the Torah. The Torah clearly recognizes that people can be farmers, business people, shipwrights, craftsmen, etc. - and not on a "if you can't/won't learn full time" basis - but as a preferred option. Sure, in some pipe dream world it would be nice if everyone could be a Rosh Yeshiva. In a similar scenario in the secular world, it would be nice if everyone could grow up to be the President of the United States. But that isn't going to happen. And the fact that there are millions of people who don't become the President doesn't take away from their intrinsic self-worth. Likewise, someone becoming a zoologist, a computer programmer, a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber, etc., doesn't take away from their intrisic self-worth as a Jew. Certainly one is required to learn when he can - no one is disputing that - but the idea that people are "failures" or "disappointments" because they don't want to (or don't have the temperment to) be engaged in Torah learning 24/7 is downright fallacious.

The Torah recognizes that a society has to have people of all occupations to survive. It's too bad that there are segments within our population that can't see this obvious fact.

The Wolf

Thursday, September 29, 2005

On Children's Aspirations

My oldest son (S1) is an animal nut. Ever since he was a pup, he's always loved animals. To him, a trip to the zoo is a great day. His favorite computer game is Microsoft's Zoo Tycoon. He reads animal books whenever possible. For a long time, he wanted to be a farmer when he grew up. When he found out that most forms of farming are more about the agriculture than the animals, however, he switched his goal to becoming a zoologist.

Naturally, you'd expect a kid like this to want a pet. And naturally, as good parents who want to encourage him to chase his dreams, we were open to the idea of pets. (As a side note, I had two dogs in the house growing up, so I certainly was no stranger to the concept of animals in the house). However, for a long time we were renting and has leases that did not allow pets. In addition, certain relatives of ours are highly allergic to cats and dogs; and since we value thier company in our house, such large animals were ruled out, even when we got a place of our own.

Even before we had kids, my wife and I had hamsters in the house. By the time the kids came around, however, we had stopped having them (the ones we had died and we simply did not get any new ones). So, naturally, when S1 decided he wanted a pet, we went with the animal that we had experience with, that wouldn't cause allergy problems, and wouldn't get us evicted from our apartment - hamsters.

Hamsters, being small rodents, have a lifespan of only two to three years. My son, because of his love for animals, tends to become attached to them. He's already lost a few hamsters over the years (we usally have more than one at a time), but each time he loses one, it hurts. Sadly, we lost a long-time hamster (over three years) this week and it left my son upset and crying.

As it turns out, my wife (W) had to go to the boys yeshiva to speak to the Menahel about a matter concerning my son (unrelated to the hamster). While she was there, she also mentioned the fact that his hamster had died and that he may be "out of sorts" for a day or so.

Now, this Menahel is a very fine gentleman, one for whom I have respect. In all the years that our kids have been in the yeshiva, he has always shown to have our children's best interests at heart. While other officials in the yeshiva are seemingly ready to knock the kids down (figuratively) whenever possible, he always looks to build them up. Of course, he is very Chareidi and has one view of the world, as was again illustrated to us this day.

So, W told the Menahel about the hamster and S1's attachment to it. She explained to him that he *really* loves animals and that he has aspirations to be a zoologist one day.

He looked at her and said "We had hopes that he'd aspire to be a Rosh Yeshiva."

Now, of course, aspiring to be a Rosh Yeshiva is certainly a good thing - for those who aspire for it. While one's life should be filled with Torah and Mitzvos regardless of the occupation that one goes into, there is certainly nothing wrong with aspiring to be something other than a Rosh Yeshiva. After all, we can't ALL be Rosh Yeshivas. There certainly isn't anything wrong with recognizing the fact that one wants to spend one's life in the pursuit of other goals. The Torah certainly recognizes it, of course - that why it gave us laws for farmers, buisnesspeople, hunters and the like. If everyone was meant to be a Rosh Yeshiva, we wouldn't need laws telling us to give Terumah and Ma'aser from agriculture - since there wouldn't be any Jewish farmers anyway. There wouldn't be any laws concerning false weights and measures - because there wouldn't be any Jewish grocers - they'd all be learning in Yeshiva. The fact that the Torah gives us laws regulating our daily lives in business shows that it is acceptable to persue those occupations.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a classmate when I was in high school. As a high schooler (and to this day) I've always had an affinity for computers. Sure enough, I ended up making my living working with them. Anyway, I had invited a classmate of mine to come to my house to play computer games. He came and we played, and it became a semi-regular thing for him to be at my house playing computer games with me during lunchtime or on Sunday afternoons. However, there was one time when I invited him over that he expressed some hesitency. When I asked him what the problem was, he told me that he was concerned because he was sure that his father wanted him to be a talmid chochom and not a computer programmer when he grew up.* Even at that time, I knew the two didn't have to be mutually exclusive, but nonetheless that seems to be the prevailing theory even to this day. I often wonder: if any of my high school classmates could see me today, would they think that I was a failure because I don't spend all day learning? And, if so, have they ever given any serious thought to what the world would be like if we all were Roshei Yeshiva and no one engaged in any other occupation?

The Wolf

* Of course, we all know that one does not become a computer programmer from playing computer games. But even then, I had a feeling that I would end up on the path I took.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On Yeshiva Parents and 529s

A 529 (for those not in the know) is a savings plan, designed to help people save money for future college expenses. There are certain tax-benefits involved with 529s that make them very attractive.

Of course, most people send their children to public school, and so might have money to set aside for 529s. Most Yeshiva parents (who want to send their kids to college), on the other hand, probably do not put money into 529s - largely because the cost of the Yeshiva itself is very large and does not leave much money left over for college savings. (Of course, folks like Heshy [who believe that there shouldn't be any Jewish doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc.] have no need of a 529).

I'm not really looking to start a rant on Yeshiva costs here - we all know that Yeshivos do have expenses to meet. What I'm really looking for is advice and ideas. For those of you who do manage to squeeze a couple of extra dollars into the 529s every month, how do you do it. I know, of course, that a automatic withdrawl solution might be best, but, truth be told, things are tight enough as it is now.

Of course, I'm funding the 401(k) that I have. I'm following the old adage "there are programs to help finance your kid's education, but there are no programs to finance your retirement," meaning that the 401(k) comes before the 529. So, for the moment, the kids' college accounts are empty.

So, for those of you who are putting away extra money in a 529 (or similar) plan, please share your success stories. How did you do it while still paying Yeshiva tution for a kid (or multiple kids)? What sacrifices did you make to do it? Are you happy with your investment so far? Do you think you'll meet your investment goals? And are you paying full Yeshiva tuition? :)

The Wolf

Friday, September 23, 2005

On Convictions and Conversions

There are two places on my daily trip home from work every day where I encounter Christian missionaries. One is at the start of the trip, when I enter the subway. There is usually a woman there with a microphone going on about how if one accepts Jesus, all will be well with you in the afterlife.

When I get off the train, I catch a bus. At the corner where I catch the bus, there is usually another person there missionizing. He does it a bit differently. He simply stands there with a bicycle and a sign and waits for people to approach him. I've eavesdropped on some of his conversations and he seems like a fairly intelligent person. I've never actually spoken to him directly.

This story is not about either of those people. :) (Hat tip: Douglas Adams - go to page 2).

This is about someone who approached me while I was listening in on a conversation the bicycle evangelist was having with someone else.

I was approached by a balding gentleman, about 40 years old, short, with a short red beard. He was wearing what looked like maroon hospital scrubs. He came to me and asked me if I believed in Jesus. I decided to entertain him and answered that I did not.

"Why don't you believe in Jesus?" he asked me.

"Why should I?" was my response. He responded with a verse from the Christian Bible.

"You do realize," I informed my disputant, "that quoting from the New Testament to convince me isn't going to do you any good, since I don't hold of the authority of the New Testament to begin with."

"But he died on the cross for you," was the next line of argument. Rather than get bogged down in the historical accuracy of the statement, I decided to try a different tack.

"So?" I said. "What does that mean?"


"You said that Jesus died on the cross. What does that mean? How did he die for me? Lots of people died on crosses. What makes his death any more special to me than any other?"

"Pray with me..." was the next tack.

Now, I knew the answers to the questions that I asked. I'm actually fairly well versed (for an outsider) in Christian theology. I know the significance (in Christian thought) of the crucifixion, the resurrection, Original Sin, etc. But I find it interesting that my disputant, who was trying to convince me to become a Christian, could not even tell me the very basics of *why* he was a Christian.

"Don't you want to be saved?" he asked me.

"What do I need saving from?"

"From Hell."

"Why do you think I'm going to Hell?" I asked him. "I'm not a wicked person."

"Because you don't believe in Jesus."

"But why would I be going to Hell because I don't believe in Jesus?"

"Because Jesus said so."

"But since I don't hold of the authority of the New Testament, that basically boils back to "because I said so." I replied. "That's not enough. If you want me to believe, you have to give me a reason."

"I believe it," he said. "Isn't that good enough for you?"

"Of course not," I replied with a smile. "I believe Jesus wasn't the messiah. Isn't that good enough for you?"

In the end, he left me alone, he simply could not convince me. No surprise there... I don't think he really had any idea why he was a Christian himself.

Of course, that got me to wondering how many frum Jews know why they are frum Jews. I'm sure that, as a whole, frum Jews are far better educated about their religion than most Christians (especially those who didn't go to a parochial school or religious seminary). And I'm fairly certain that most frum Jews *inwardly* know why they are frum Jews. But how many can express that in words; in clear coherent sentences. I'm not looking for people to bring proofs to the authenticity of Judaism (a la the Kuzari)... just simple statements that explain why they believe what they do.

The kiruv movement has brought this more into the spotlight in recent years. After all, as my disputant showed, you can't convince someone else of something unless you can articulate what it is you're trying to sell. And I don't think that you have to trot out false "proofs" to convince people of the wonderfulness of Judaism. All you have to do is be able to articulate what it is you find special about Judaism; the wonderfulness of the holidays, the meanings behind some of the rituals we observe; the bond that forms in our communities (barring the rotten apples, of course :) ), etc. *That's* the point that needs to be emphasized when speaking to people about Judaism.

The Wolf

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

On Closemindedness and Cluelessness

My wife is a class mother in all of our children's classes. She finds that it's a wonderful way to get to know our kids' classmates and parents better, as well as a way to have a better insight into the workings of the schools that our kids attend.

One thing that always frustrated my wife was that in my son's school, they never give out a class list to the parents. My wife gets the list because she is the class mother, but if not for that, she wouldn't get one.

She was speaking to the head of the PTA at our sons' school last night to confirm that she wanted to be the class mother again. While she had her on the phone, they got to talking about class lists and the fact that the school doesn't distribute them. While the PTA head didn't know why our school doesn't distribute it, she gave us an insight into antother school's reasons for not distributing class lists. The reason this other school didn't do it was because at one time they did, but some parents became upset. Not over privacy issues, mind you, but over the fact that they felt that distributing the lists would cause certain kids to want to be friends with other kids, and they didn't want their kids to be unduly influenced by these other (presumably less worthy) kids.

Aside from the fact that such thinking is utterly provincial and backwards, it's also one of the stupidest things that I've heard on the face of the earth. You're sending your kid to a school where the kids spend eight to eleven hours together per day, six days a week (maybe Sunday is only half a day) and you're worried that an hour spent together out of school is going to cause your kid to be unduly influenced by this other kid? If you're that concerned, don't send your kid to school with other kids that you don't approve of!

The Wolf

Friday, September 09, 2005

On Being Bored with Gemara

My oldest son (S1) is currently starting his third year of learning Gemara in yeshiva. The first year (as is traditional, I suppose) was spent learning Eilu Metziyos. Last year, he did a perek in Bava Kamma. He went back to school this week, only to find out that he's going to be learning another perek in Bava Kamma this year.

I haven't had a chance to talk with S1 about this, but I've been informed by my wife that he is bored with Gemara. It just doesn't hold much interest for him.

Now, I know he doesn't really have a problem with learning in general. He will easily learn Nach or Chumash on his own and is currently learning Mishnayos with me (Moed) for his Bar Mitzvah without complaint (sometimes he even comes and asks me to learn it with him).

I'm wondering if maybe he's just bored with the topic of civil law. I know, personally, that of all the areas of halacha, that is the last one I'd voluntarily approach. Knowing who is liable when someone's ox gores another ox is not terribly interesting to me. (Yes, I understand that it's not just limited to oxen per se; but the whole idea of civil law just never interested me, even at the secular level).

During my first four years of learning Gemara in yeshiva (way back in the day), we covered Eilu Metziyos first, but then went on to learn Makkos, Kiddushin and Gittin (in that order). I must admit that I was certainly exposed to a wider variety of study than my son is currently being exposed to. If I had to learn Nezikin (and when I say Nezikin, I mean Bava Kamma, Bava Metziya and Bava Basra -- not Sanhedrin, Makkos, etc.) for the first three or four years straight, I probably never would have picked up a Gemara again in my life.

I could always bring this up with the yeshiva, but they're not going to change their curriculum once the year has started. I suppose I could always try to learn something else on the side with my son, but he's got quite enough on his plate for the coming year - I don't really think that he can handle an additional Gemara seder on top of everything else he has.

I'm going to speak with S1 over Shabbos and see if this is really the case or if there is some other problem here.

However, I'm kind of curious... is this now the norm? As I mentioned, when I was younger I covered a broader set of topics in my first years exposed to Gemara. I know that yeshivas often gravitate toward the more "yeshivish" tractates and don't learn others at all (except maybe in a b'kius setting). Is this still the case? Do yeshivos still tend to focus on Nezikin moreso than other topics, or is this just a fluke on the part of my sons' school?

The Wolf

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

On Yeshivos and Personal Lives

"Any parent planning on making a Bar Mitzvah Simcha must speak to me first before any plans are made."

"Any boy caught going to a movie theathre will be expelled from the Yeshiva."

These are just some of the tidbits that came along with the rules and regulations for my sons' Yeshiva. I suppose I shouldn't complain... I haven't been forced to sign a contract that states that I don't have a TV or that my wife and I keep separate beds or that we only use Chassideshe schita meats.

I find it amazing how much of our personal lives we cede when we send our kids to Yeshiva. I'm not talking about things like dress codes. I'm talking about clauses that regulate how *parents* behave in their homes, such as requiring that parents not even own a television or go to the movies (regardless of whether or not the kids are involved). Of course, one can simply lie to the yeshiva, but that really sidesteps the issue - that a yeshiva feels that they can make this sort of demand on parents in the first place.

Of course, I realize that a yeshiva is a private institution and, as a private institution, from a legal standpoint, can make any rule it wishes. If they wanted to, they could mandate that my wife and I go around in bumblebee costumes all the time and, if we want our kids to attend, we have to comply or leave the yeshiva.

I'm curious as to why we allow our kids' yeshivos to assume this kind of authority over our lives. My guess would be that it is due to the lack of competition among yeshivos. While it is true that there are umpteen yeshivos in Brooklyn, the reality is that, for any individual household, there are probably only two or three that they would really consider sending their kids to. The rest are just about as foreign (and possibly even more so) than a public school would be. For example, I would never send my kids to a Satmar yeshiva, nor would I send them to a co-ed school like Yeshiva of Flatbush. My gut feeling is that most families also have their "type" where they will send their kids and would not consider any other except in the most unusual of circumstances.

I'm wondering if this can also help explain the tuition situation. The fact is that schools know that there are only so many other places where you'll send your kid, and so they don't see a real need to "compete" against each other for kids.

I've long been curious about the requirement in my kids' school to see the Menahel before Bar Mitzvah plans are drawn up. What are they going to require? Are *they* going to decide whether or not my son lains his Bar Mitzvah parsha? (As an aside, I've been teaching Bar Mitzvah bachurim to lain for fifteen years. I have a *very* good idea which kids are capable of laining a parsha and which are better suited spending their time learning a Mesechta or Seder of Mishnayos for their Bar Mitzvah.) I think that this is a decision that should be made by the parents, the Bar Mitzvah boy and his teachers. In fact, I can't think of one decision that should be made by the yeshiva. So, what do they need to meet with parents for? Has anyone been through this before?

The Wolf

Sunday, September 04, 2005

On Disabling Bloglet

To those of you who have subscribed to my blog through Bloglet, I regret to inform you that I will be discontinuing this subscription. I found that Bloglet was sending out posts that I had only saved as drafts and not as final versions. Until Bloglet can fix this, I will have to disable this feature.

My apologies.

The Wolf

On Blog Abandonment

No, I haven't abandoned mine. I've just been very busy of late. I will try to post more regularly.

The Wolf