Tuesday, February 28, 2006

On Hypothetical Shidduch Calls

Riiiiiing! Riiiiiiiing!

"Hello? Hello? Hi! How can I help you?"

"You need a shidduch for your son? Well, you've come to the right place, um... what was your name?"

"Yossi. Right. Well, you've come to the right place. I'm sure we can find your son's bashert. Now, of course, I'll need a little information about him. For starters, how old is he?"

"Forty? Did you say forty?! Well, truth be told, that's kind of old for a shidduch. Has he ever been married? No, well, OK, let's see what we can do. Next question: what does he do for a living?"

"Excuse me, did you say livestock? Ooooooookay. I just wanted to make sure that I heard that correctly. How about his education. What yeshiva did he go to?"

"None! He hasn't gone to yeshiva at all? He knows nothing? How is it that a child in a Jewish home didn't go to yeshiva. Didn't his grandparents offer to chip in for tuition if you couldn't afford it?"

"Oh, I see. Your parents aren't Jewish. You're a ger. So, any girl he marries will have a ger for a father-in-law and non-Jewish grandparents-in-law. To speak frankly, Yossi, the prospects for your son are rather dim. I don't know of any girl that would marry him. Well, let's try one more approach. Do you have any money?"

"No. Poor. Hmm. Well, I'm sorry Yossi. I don't think I'm going to be able to find a girl for your son. I just don't think it's possible. To be honest, between your son's lack of yichus, learning and money, there's simply no hope for... what was his name again?"

"Akiva. Right. I'm sorry, but there's just no hope of getting a shidduch for him."

The Wolf

Monday, February 27, 2006

It Was The Best Of Weddings, It Was The Worst Of Weddings

I recently attended a wedding of a daughter of someone who lives and works in our neighborhood. Over the last year or so, we've seen them quite often (they run a business that we frequent in the neighborhood) and have become friendly with them. Even so, we certainly didn't expect an invitation to their daughter's wedding, and was pleasantly surprised when it appeared in our mailbox.

The wedding itself was a lovely affair. The music was good, the food was fine, and the dancing was energetic and spirited. In the spirit of having fun, I had begun wearing offbeat ties to weddings. The one in the picture was the one I wore last night.

So, how was it the worst of weddings?

Well, did you ever go to a wedding where you know *no one* except for the groom or bride? Well, that was the situation last night. Aside from my wife (whom I couldn't sit with because of separate seating), I knew no one at the wedding last night. But, I figured, that's OK. Maybe I'll sit with someone interesting. Sometimes my tie itself acts as an icebreaker.

So, I arrive at my table after the chuppah, the first one there. I grab a seat, sit down and wait.

Within a few minutes, an older gentleman comes to the table and sits down about two seats away from me. He's a chossid, complete with beard, hat, black garb, white shirt, no tie and long peyos. He starts greeting me (or at least I suppose so) in Yiddish. I tell him that I don't speak Yiddish. "Ivrit? (Hebrew)" he asks. "Ketzat (a little)," is my reply. He begins speaking in rapid-fire Hebrew, but it's clear within three sentences that he's lost me.

Soon a few more people show up at the table - some older, some younger - all chassidim - with beards, black hats, black garb, white shirt, no tie and long peyos. Eventually the table was filled (except for the seats on either side of me) with chassidim animatedly chattering in Yiddish - and me - with no hat, blue suit, clean shaven, funny tie and peyos neatly trimmed and barely able to speak a word of the language. The whole thing was so sad (from my perspective) that it was funny. I called my wife and told her "Come over and take a look at my table. You're not going to believe this." When she spotted my table, she started laughing at how comical and sad the situation was.

So, there I sat, passing on the fish, eating the soup and watching the others at my table. Aside from the gentleman who tried to address me and one (who arrived later in the meal and said "hello" in English, no one acknowledged my presence). Truth be told, however, I'm not all that much of a socializer, so it wasn't *that* bad.

That is, until I got a look at the table manners that some of them had. Oy vey!

There were some there that had impeccable table manners. But there were some...

  • Two of them ate their salads with their hands.
  • During the main course, one of them started picking apart his green beans with his hands. If he had been trying to remove the peas, I might have excused it. But then he ate the whole thing anyway!
  • One person put a knife in his mouth to clean it off (N.B. I'll sometimes do this too - but only in private. I'd never do it in public!)
  • Another fellow picked up a wine bottle and, upon finding that the bottle was empty, started biting on and sucking on the cork!
  • One "gentleman" apparently didn't know how to use a knife since he picked up his chicken cutlet whole and just bit chunks off of it.
  • Two fellows at the table took an extra main portion and split it between themselves (and this was before they even started the "first" portion that they had).
  • One fellow asked another to pass him the Diet Coke. The second fellow then picked up the Diet Coke, poured most of it into his own glass and then passed the rest (maybe half a cup's worth) to the first guy.

Now, it's certainly possible that I'm obsessed and compulsive about table manners. My kids know not to do these things - most of these things are things that we've pounded into our kids at the dinner table since day one (well, except for the wine bottle...). And if it was just one lapse or two, I could also overlook it. But it was a group of people displaying the most atrocious table manners that I have seen adults display in a long, long time. I certainly don't expect perfection from anyone, but the display I saw at the wedding was just too much for me.

So, as for the ceremony, smorgasbord, hosts, dancing and even the food, it was the best of weddings.

As for the people at my table, it was the worst.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Off Topic: Book Recommendation - 102 Minutes

I know that this has nothing to do with Judaism or the frum community, but please bear with me.

I just finished reading 102 Minutes, by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn. The book covers what happened in the World Trade Center complex in the 102 minutes between when the first plane struck and when the last tower fell.

Based on interviews with survivors, friends and relatives, and transcripts of police/fire/911 recordings, Dwyer and Flynn reconstruct the stories of several dozen people who were in the towers that day, some of whom made it out and some of whom didn't. The book describes the rescue efforts, the problems that were faced by rescuers and workers based on building design, FDNY/NYPD/PAPD policies and the physical conditions created by the airplanes.

The book shows how many people were affected that day by the choices that they made - and how in many cases, those choices meant the difference between surviving and not making it.

Throughout the book, you get to know the people who were in the buildings, the firefighters and police officers who went in to the buildings to rescue people trapped, and the civilians who (some at the cost of their own lives) went through the building helping escape from trapped rooms, elevators and infernos.

I was about a block and a half away when the towers came down on Sep 11, 2001. I had been working in the neighborhood for almost ten years to that point, and had seen the towers on a daily basis and been in them many times. So, the even though I knew no one personally who died that day, I still feel a personal connection with the events of that day.

I found myself unable to put the book down, captivated by the accounts of people struggling to survive in such horrific conditions and others going into the buildings to rescue them.

As a side note, the book does recount the stories of two Orthodox Jews who were in the towers that day - Abe Zelmanowitz, who remained behind in the towers with a paraplegic friend, and Shimmy Biegeleisen, who was trapped above the crash zone.

The Wolf

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Is Tisha B'Av Your Favorite Holiday?

Apparently, it is the favorite of many people.

The OU currently has a poll up on their site, asking people what their favorite holiday is. The choices are Passover, Shavout, Tisha B'Av, Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Channukah or Purim.

The results so far (out of 4543 votes cast):

Rosh HaShannah 4%
Yom Kippur 5%
Channukah 6%
Shavout 7%
Sukkot 10%
Passover 18%
Purim 23%

and leading with 27% and over 1200 votes... Tisha B'Av!

I can only attribute this to open tampering, as I highly doubt that 25% of Jews (even in a SLOP) would actaully list Tisha B'Av as their favorite holiday.

I'm kind of curious, however, about what the OU was thinking when they put that choice up there. I would sooner have put Tu B'Shvat than Tisha B'Av.

The Wolf

On the Push For Tuition Tax Credits

Or at least accoring to Rabbi Eli Monsour.

I was mass-forwarded an email this morning a letter from Rabbi Monsour, discussing why we should support the tuition tax credits for parents who send their kids to yeshivos.

If my understanding of this is correct, the general idea is that we should support a bill in the legislature that will provide a $500 tax credit to private school parents to help defray the rising costs of tuition. Certainly, that's how the bill is being presented to the members of the New York State Senate and Assembly - as a measure to help parents pay the costs of tuition.

However, I'm struck by the following paragraph in Rabbi Monsour's letter (bolding mine)

Needless to say, private school tuition costs are one of, if not the largest monetary burden facing our families. If this bill, which is coming before the New York State Legislature next month, were to pass, - the strain on many of our community?s organizations, including; the Sephardic Bikur Holim, the Sephardic Angel Fund, the Sephardic Food Fund, and even Sephardic SAFE, will be greatly reduced. Even our Yeshiva?s will be less pressured, as the need to provide student scholarships and discounted tuition costs will be sharply reduced.

In his first statement, Rabbi Monsour is certainly correct. Private school tuitions *are* one of the largest costs facing families that send their children to yeshivos, parochial or other private schools. However, by the time he gets to the last sentence, he seems to have forgotten the first. My understanding of his last sentence (and if you have a different interpretation, I'd like to hear it) is that yeshivos will be able to reduce scholarships that they provide to parents who can't afford it, because the parents will have extra money to pay. In other words, the bill that is supposed to provide monetary relief to families, in fact, will provide none. If the scholarships for families that have them will be reduced by the amount of the tax credit, then the net change in cost to the parent will be zero. That is not a relief for parents.

I find this all just a bit dishonest. If one wants to frame the bill as a measure to increase funding to schools, then by all means, frame it that way. But I find that framing it as a relief for parents when (as my reading of Rabbi Monsour's statements) in fact, the parents will see no real monetary benefit from it, is just dishonest.

I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea of additional funding for schools and students. But I believe that if that is the goal, it should be presented in that manner, and not as a bogus measure to provide relief to parents.

(cross-posted with entire text of email over at Hashkafah.com)

The Wolf

Monday, February 20, 2006

On Education

My oldest son (S1) will soon be going to high school. Unfortunately, my wife and I have no idea where we're going to send him.

He's been in the same "standard" yeshiva since nursery school and while we can't say that we're crazy over the education he's gotten, it hasn't been terrible and is certainly a step above what many other elementary school yeshivos provide.

Recently, my wife and I got a glimpse into what the high school is like in this school, and we were less than pleased. Most of the secular studies drop off after ninth grade. While the students do study for and take the New York State Regents exams, there is very little in the way of actual education. It gets to the point where in twelfth grade, there are actually no classes at all - students merely have to turn in papers to get credit. The entire day is pretty much spent learning Torah.

While learning Torah is important and should always be the main focus of a yeshiva, the secular studies aspect of it is also very important to my wife and I. When we were first looking for a school for S1, there was a new school that was opening up in our neighborhood that had an excellent secular studies department. We declined to send him there for two reasons: (1) the boys did not have a Rebbe until about third or fourth grade and (2) for some grades, there were secular studies in the morning and Limudei Kodesh in the afternoon. My wife and I disagreed with both of those paradigms, and so we did not send him there. The main issue, really was the second one - it should not be forgotten that the main reason for a yeshiva's existence is to teach our children Torah. By having secular studies first for some grades, it sends the opposite message (in my opinion). The other issue (the lack of a Rebbe) wasn't a deal-breaker for us, but was also a troubling issue for us.

That being said, we recognize that Limudei Kodesh is more important than secular studies. Whatever my children do with their lives - whether they become doctors, lawyers, Roshei Yeshiva, zoologists, computer programmers, whatever... they will always first and foremost be Jews. As such, they have to have the basic knowledge and foundations for that most essential role in life. How they earn their livelihood is secondary (although very important).

On the other hand, we view our obligations as parents not only to teach our children Torah and how to be fine, upstanding Jews, but also how to get by in the world. We view it as our obligation to make sure that our children are capable of taking care of themselves financially when they have families of their own. To us, it is important that all of our children go on to college, or learn some trade that will ensure that they will not be a burden on the government or other Jews. And that leads us to where we are now.

My son's present school, due to it's dismal secular studies department, is not an option for high school. But where to send him? We want a place that takes learning Torah seriously. We want a place that is sex-segregated (the last thing we need is the additional distraction of girls in school). And we want a place that makes a serious commitment at preparing our kids for the possibility of going to college if they so wish. Sadly, I don't see too many schools doing this.

My own high school, of course, did not encourage students to go to college. In fact, I delayed going to college for one semester because I didn't want to get into trouble for requesting my records for a college. The last thing I needed was to have my Rosh Yeshiva (with whom I was in the doghouse often enough) come down on me and threaten to expel me for applying to college. And so, I didn't apply until after I graduated. (The fact that I was accepted into college was only because I did a lot of independent study on my own in high school, far beyond what I was taught in the actual classes.)

This is not a path that I want my own children to follow. I want them to go to a school where learning Torah and secular studies are both treated importantly - where both Torah learning and secular studies are regarded as having intrinsic value and not where the latter is tolerated simply because it is mandated by the state. Sadly, I don't know of any such schools in Brooklyn. Do you?

The Wolf

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

On Reality Altering Rituals

I received several emails today reminding me to recite Parshas HaMon today. Parshas HaMon is the portion of the Torah that describes the manna that was given to the Jews in the Wilderness by God for forty years. Parshas HaMon consists of Exodus/Shemos 16. There is a segulah that reciting this section of the Torah on the Tuesday before it is read in shul on Shabbos will bring one added income during the year.

This, however, contradicts the Gemara (Beitzah 16a) which states that one's income for the coming year is set between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur.

I suppose that this seeming contradiction shouldn't bother me. After all, there is a long-standing and well-honored tradition among Jews to recite Tehillim (Psalms) for someone who is ill or in situations where one's life is in danger. This practice, too, seems to contadict the idea that we are all inscribed for life or death between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. And I'll admit that I engage in this behavour as well. When my mother was near-death a couple of weeks ago, I recited Tehillim and prayed for her recovery. Of course, if her fate was sealed on Yom Kippur, my prayers and the prayers of those who prayed for her should not have made a difference.

To tell the truth, these contradictions do not really bother me so much. I have a mental image of heartfelt and sincere prayer being able to "break open" the seal on the Book of Life and have the name of one who wasn't inscribed therein previously now be written. (I do, however, have more of a problem of a simple recital of Shemos 16 breaking the seal of the Book of Parnassah, but that's another issue for another time).

I often do wonder, however, about the real efficacy of our prayers. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any reliable data out there that can tell me how often saying Tehillim for an ill person really does work in arousing God's mercy to effect a cure. There are certainly plenty of anecdotal stories out there, but no hard and fast data. And, to me, that's very frustrating.

It's one thing to take something on complete faith because it's unvarifiable. For example, I believe in the existence of God even though there is no data to prove it; indeed, I don't think God's existence is provable. As such, knowing that it cannot be proven or disproven with data, I don't have a problem believing that God exists.

The efficacy of prayer, on the other hand, *is* provable, if the data were available. A rise of income when someone recites Parshas HaMon on the Tuesday of Parshas BeShalach *can* be correlated with the proper data. How safe one stays by wearing a red string can be measured. But sadly, I'm not aware of anyone who keeps systematic data on this.

This is the type of thing that I find difficult to take on faith. It's hard to take it on faith that reciting Parshas HaMon will increase the size of your bank account, because it's something that can be verified, but has not been. It's hard to motivate myself to recite Tehillim for someone because I don't know if it's really effective or not - and the information could be available.

We, as Jews, have many rituals. Some, like Lulav, are done simply because we believe that God commanded us to. Others, however, are done in the hopes of altering reality - of changing something in our lives or the lives of our community members for the better - whether it be for help earning a livelihood, finding one's lifetime partner, or simply staying alive. Are these rituals really effective in altering our reality? Do Tehillim really keep a person alive? Does giving charity or reciting Parshas HaMon really increase one's wealth?

I would love to be albe to keep track of people, setting up a control group of Jews who don't practice a certain segulah and then measuring them against another group that do practice the segulah. Of course, I'd *really* love for it to be a blind study, but that just wouldn't be possible in this case (can you give someone a Tehillim with a few words misplaced here and there so that they are reciting "placebo Tehillim?"). We could then analyze the data and see if the practice of a certain segulah is merited.

Of course, there are those in our community who will disavow any result that doesn't show that the segulah is effective. For example, if we found that people who recited Parshas HaMon actually *lost* money over the year, they would simply dismiss the result out of hand. But I'm not really worried about them. I'd love to just see the data for myself and then make an informed decision as to the efficacy of the segulah in question.

The Wolf

Friday, February 03, 2006

On Darkness and Dying

I remember having discussions with some friends and classmates about the plague of darkness. Rashi (in next week's parsha) brings up the famous Mechilta that only one in five Jews survived the plague - the rest of the Jews, being deemed unworthy of redemption, perished and were buried. The reason that this was done during the plague of darkness was so that the Egyptians should not see the Jews dying in the plague.

Of course, the Mechilta goes on from there to describe that some state that it wasn't one in five that survived the plague, but perhaps one in fifty, or even one in five hundred, or possibly even more (as sworn to by R. Nehorai)!

I really don't want to delve into the issue of Jewish population growth in Egypt and how growing from 70 people to a few million in the span of only a bit over two centuries is nothing short of miraculous (which, I guess, it was). But to say that there were over a billion Jews in Jews during the plague of locusts (2 million Jews [a conservative estimate] * 500 = one billion!) is simply just too far fetched to believe.

In any event, what I really wanted to focus on was the plague itself and its effects on the Jews and the Egyptian reaction (or lack thereof) to it.

When discussing this with other people who take the midrash at face value, the first thing that I usually bring up is the fact that if 80% (at a conservative estimate!) of the Jews in Egypt suddenly disappeared, I find it very hard to believe that the Egyptians would not notice that they were missing. I know that if I woke up tomorrow morning and found that 80% of New York's population suddenly vanished, I'd notice very quickly, even though there would still be over a million and a half people in the city.

The standard reply I get to that is that the Egyptians were too busy reeling from the effects of the plague to notice the sudden drop in population. My answer to that, is that no matter what I was going through personally in my life, if four out of every five New Yorkers suddenly vanished (and certainly if more did so), I'd notice it once I spent more than ten minutes out of my house. I find it highly unlikely that the Egyptians would fail to notice that so many people suddenly dropped off the face of the earth.

The next objection that I bring up really doesn't apply as much to the one in five theory, but far more so to the one in fifty (or more) count. Specifically, the Mechilta tells us that not only did they die, but that they actually buried their dead. The plague itself lasted no more than seven days, and yet I find it hard to believe that you can bury close to a billion bodies in the span of seven days. Even if you rely on the one in five number, you are left with the question of where all these bodies are buried -- eight million graves must take up a lot of room, even using mass graves. And if there were a thousands of freshly dug mass graves (or eight million individual ones!), I again find it hard to believe that the Egyptians would not notice.

In short, I always failed to understand how the Mechilta made the case that the reason the Jews had to die during the plague of darkness was so that the Egyptians would not notice that the Jews died in the plague (and in a plague when no Egyptians died!).

Rabbi Uri Cohen, of the Center for Jewish Life in Princton, in discussing the number of Jews that died during the plague, quotes R. Shimon Schwab. (PDF) R. Schwab maintains that the numbers are not entirely literal. Just as it is possible to interpret the verse "Kol D'mai Achicha" (your brother's bloods) in the story of Cain and Abel as referring to Abel's future descendants who would never be born because of Cain, so to the numbers here don't refer to the actual number of Jews who might have left Egypt if they'd lived, but to their descendants.

I find that explanation troubling, for one simple reason. If the Torah (or the Mechilta) would have given a raw number (eight million Jews didn't leave Egypt) or just a vague statement (such as "Kol D'mai Achicah") , then I might be able to accept that explanation. But since the Mechilta gave the number of Jews who didn't leave as a percentage, I find it difficult to accept that this can refer to future generations. Unless R. Schwab is telling us that the small number of people who died in the plague of darkness (because he doesn't hold that the actual number of deaths was so high) were destined to have so many and far more children that they would be the ancestors of 80% (or more) of the Jewish nation in the future, his statement simply cannot apply.

Of course, if one simply translates the verse "Chamushim" as "armed," all of these problems go away. :)

The Wolf

On Funny Kashrus Alerts

I saw this Kashrus alert item and thought it quite funny.

WWJD brand pita bread bears an unauthorized Star-K. This product was found in a Sam's Club. Corrective action is being taken.

WWJD? He certainly wouldn't falsely advertise non-kosher items as kosher. :)

The Wolf