Friday, August 28, 2009

To Lift The Veil? Looking for Advice...

As many of you who read my blog regularly know, I sometimes flirt with the idea of giving up the whole cloak-and-dagger business of anonymity. Truth be told, I was never one for hiding behind the cover of anonymity. I've been at this now for over four years and in all that time, I have never been entirely comfortable hiding behind a pseudonym. On the contrary -- I am actually far more comfortable putting my real name out there with my opinions. For years I have posted with my real name on an online message board where almost everyone else used a pseudonym -- and I never had a moment's regret from it. And, in truth, since the opinions I have on this blog are the same ones that I have in real life, there shoudn't be any reason to hide behind a pseudonym, should there? And besides, there are plenty of bloggers who have views and attitudes that are fairly similar to mine who have public identities -- and it doesn't interfere with their lives -- so why should it interfere with mine?

As it is, I have been slowly lifting the veil. Over the last few months I've informed a number of friends and relatives about my blog. Several J-bloggers and some of my regular readers also know who I am in real life. So, why not go whole hog and just give up the pseudonym?

Well, truth to be told, there is still one hurdle that I have to face in the coming months, and it might be easier to face that hurdle without the distraction of this blog.

I have two kids going into eighth grade this year -- a boy and a girl. As a result, Eeees and I have the distinct "pleasure" of going through the process of finding high schools for our kids this coming year. And while I probably would not chose any school that would have a major problem with my blog, I still can't help but feel that the whole process would probably be a lot easier without having eight to ten school administrators poring over every word I wrote in the last four years and wondering if it's worth it to have a blogger in the parent body. So for that reason, I would probably wait until after the high school situation is settled.

But that presents another question -- is this honest and fair*? If the only reason that I'm withholding my identity is because I think it might affect the high school application process, does that mean that it's unfair and dishonest to keep the information private? Or, more subtly put -- if I was going to keep my identity private regardless, then I probably would not have this question -- after all, we all have secrets that we keep from everyone else. But, if the only reason (or the major reason) that I'm hiding my identity at this point is because of the high school application process, then perhaps withholding that information from them could be viewed as fraudulent.

Truth to tell, I'm probably blowing the entire matter up in my mind. In truth my blog is not important enough, nor well read enough to probably affect matters one way or the other. I'm willing to bet that if I pulled a ten thousand random Jews off the street and asked them if they read Wolfish Musings on the net, about 9,999 would probably say "Huh? What's that?" So perhaps I'm obsessing over nothing.

What do you think? I'd especially like to hear from those of you whose names are out there -- but, as always, everyone is welcome to comment.

The Wolf

* I don't want to make myself sound like someone who has never told a lie or acted deceitfully in the past -- sadly that is not true. I've had my share of failures (some of them big time) in the honest department during my life. But even if I sometimes fail, I at least make an effort to uphold the values that I want passed on to my kids.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Kennedy Curse

As I'm sure you've heard by now, Senator Edward Kennedy from Massachusetts passed away this morning at the age of 77 after losing his battle with brain cancer.

I don't normally blog politics (especially American politics), but I do blog faulty reasoning, and so I will take the occasion to address an issue that surrounds the Kennedys, especially when it comes to Orthodox Jews.

The issue at hand is the famous "Kennedy Curse." In the threads on YWN and VIN, commentators once again brought up "the curse."

There are various stories of how the curse started. All the stories (or at least the stories that originate from the Jewish world) involve a famous rabbi who was either insulted or rebuffed by Joseph (or Rose) Kennedy. They were then cursed by that Rabbi that their family should suffer for it.

Rose Kennedy managed to live a long life and as three of her sons and one of her daughters predeceased her, the going rumor was that she was cursed that all of her children should die before her. Her death in 1995 ended that aspect of the legend.

Truth to tell, the story has all the earmarks of an urban legend. The name of the rabbi who cursed the Kennedys changes from one telling to the next (it's most often mentioned as the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe -- but not always), as does why the curse was originally pronounced. In addition, there is no (or at least not to my knowledge) firm documented source describing the origin of the curse. In short, it sounds all too much like an urban legend.

But putting that aside, let's ask the question -- is the curse real? The Kennedys, as we all know, have lost quite a few family members in high-profile deaths. The fact is that the average age of death of the eight deceased Kennedy children (Jean is still alive) is just under 60 years -- a rather low figure in today's day and age. Of course, even that number is misleading because the average life expectancy was much lower when some of the Kennedy children died long ago.

While it's true that some Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children have died young, let's consider for the moment that all of them survived to adulthood. The Kennedy children are of the same generation as my grandparents. All four of my grandparents were born in the United States. Of the four of them, three lost siblings as children. I think that if most people who had grandparents growing up in the United States at that time do a little research, they will find that many (if not most) of them lost siblings during childhood. Infant and child mortality in those days was quite high and, unfortunately, losing a child was not as uncommon as it is today -- especially in families with a lot of children such as the Kennedys. So, right off the bat, I'd have to say that the fact that all of Joseph and Rose's children made it to adulthood shows that they were doing far better than many other families of the time.

That being said, let's look at the children. The Kennedys had nine children:

  • Joseph Jr. -- died in World War II, aged 29
  • John -- shot in Dallas in 1963, aged 46
  • Rosemary -- lobotomized and institutionalized, died at age 86
  • Kathleen -- died in a plane crash at age 28
  • Euncie -- died about two weeks ago at age 88
  • Patricia -- died in 2006 at age 82
  • Robert -- shot in San Francisco in 1968, aged 42
  • Jean -- still living today, aged 81
  • Edward -- died yesterday, aged 77

Of the nine children, four failed to see their fiftieth birthday (although, of the five that did, all reached at least 77 years of age). One more, Rosemary, spent almost all of her life in an institution.

But let's look at the four who died young and examine the circumstances of their deaths:

Joesph Jr. was a student at Harvard Law when World War II began. He left Harvard a year early and took officer and pilot training in the Navy. He piloted 25 combat missions during World War II and was eligible to return home.

Instead, he volunteered for a highly dangerous mission which entailed flying an explosive-laden plane with a skeleton crew which would then parachute out of the plane before detonation. It was on this mission that he was killed.

Three Kennedy sons served in World War II (Edward was only twelve when the war ended) and two survived. Many families lost sons in the war and some lost more than one child (the Sullivans famously lost five on a single ship). In that respect, I would not say that the Kennedys were cursed any more than any other family that lost a son in combat during World War II.

John Kennedy went on to become the 35th President of the United States -- the youngest man ever to be elected to the office. He served from January 1961 until his assassination in 1963.

During the course of our nation's history, 43 different men have served as President of the United States. Of those eight did not leave the office alive -- four of them were killed by assassin's bullets and the other four became ill and died. Another two recent presidents (Ford and Reagan) survived assassination attempts. In other words, about 19% of the people who took the office did not survive. Clearly, being President of the United States is a dangerous job. Aside from the enormous pressures of the job, there are always people who will want to kill the president -- from foreign terrorists to partisan nutcases (on both sides) to people who are just plain kooks. The upshot of all this is that the job of President is a high-risk occupation and as with all high-risk occupations, the fact that someone dies in that job is not the sign of a curse.

Kathleen married the Marquess of Hartington (and the heir to the dukedom of Devonshire) in 1944. She married against the will of her family and aside from Joseph Jr., no one in the family attended her wedding. Sadly, the Marquess was killed in World War II after only four months of marriage. She ended up becoming involved with a married gentleman of the British peerage who was in the process of divorcing his wife with the intent to marry him once his divorce was final. That marriage never happened because Kathleen died in a plane crash in France in 1948.

The fourth of the Kennedy children to die before their seventy fifth birthday was Robert. Robert was the junior senator from New York in 1968 and was running for the Democratic nomination for President. He had just won the California primary when he was assassinated by a young Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan. Robert Kennedy was a high profile individual (former Attorney General, Senator from New York and candidate for President) and, as such, was, like John, a high profile target.

The other five Kennedy children all survived until at least 77 years of age. Of the nine children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, seven married and six had children -- John had two surviving children, Eunice had five, Patricia had four, Robert had eleven, Jean had four and Edward had three. In total Rose and Joseph Kennedy had twenty nine grandchildren, most of whom have since married and had kids of their own.

In addition, the Kennedys became one of the premiere political families in the United States. Three of the Kennedy children became Senators and one became the President. Their grandchildren include a former Lt. Governor, at least two members of the House of Representatives and other political positions. For a family that has been cursed, they have been tremendously successful.

There are people who will point to other misfortunes that the extended Kennedy family has borne: the skiing death in 1997 of Michael Kennedy, the rape accusation against William Kennedy Smith, the car accident in 1969 that ended Edward's chances of becoming President and the airplane crash that ended the life of John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999.

I'm not at all certain that these events are out of the ordinary for a family as large as the Kennedys and that engage in the activities that the Kennedys engage in. Many families have unfortunately lost people in skiing accidents and many families tragically lose people in airplane accidents. However, in most cases, unless the person is famous (or belongs to a famous family) these events are usually unreported or forgotten shortly thereafter. I firmly believe that if you sample other families as numerous as the Kennedys that engage in similar activities, you will probably find similar results.

In short, the Kennedys have suffered tragedy over the years -- but I'm not convinced that it's so different from the tragedies that another family might have faced with the same numbers and similar circumstances.

The Wolf

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Very Sad Shidduch Story

From the Yeshiva World News Coffeeroom:

Estherh wrote:

I run a chassidish shidduch group. We have 2 girls and one boy on our list that are close to thirty.(not from the same family 3 different cases) No suggestions made are ever good enough for their parents.

What's really sad is not the fact that no potential groom/bride is ever good enough for the parents (well, that is sad... but not the saddest part of this). The really sad part is that these singles who are approaching thirty are still giving their parents veto power over whom they can or cannot date.

Yes, perhaps I just don't understand the cultural system of chassidim that allows for this sort of thing. But if that's the case, I'm curious... at what point do the "kids" get emancipated? Does a fifty year old single still have to ask her father if she can date a guy?

The Wolf

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Small Note on Mandatory Minimum Tuitions

If you read my blog, you'll find that every now and again, I go back to my high school days and complain about it.

The fact of the matter is that I was miserable in high school. My hashkafah was entirely different than that of the yeshiva I went to. I did not believe, as my high school did, that there was value only in learning Torah and nothing else. I actually had interests that did not fall squarely in the Beis HaMidrash. I knew that many of the myths that the rabbeim spouted about non-Jews (or non-frum Jews) were downright silly and false. I did not fit the mold of a typical student. I was not the best learner -- in fact, it could be safely said that I was a rotten learner -- and not one rebbi in high school made an effort to try and help. And yes, in the end, my rosh yeshiva acted dishonorably in trying to renege on a deal that he made with me to allow me to graduate on time.

But despite all that, there is one thing that needs to be said -- I went to that high school for four years for free. My mother spent the majority of those four years in the hospital either having or recovering from numerous back surgeries. She had no income to speak of during those years. I still don't know how she managed to pay the rent* or put food on the table during those years - but she somehow found a way. And yet, no matter how much "trouble" I was at the school (I was only troublesome because I didn't fit the mold, not because I was truly troublesome), they never (to my knowledge) sent a letter asking my mother for money or threatening to not allow me back because she did not (and could not) pay tuition.

I'm often left to wonder what would have happened to me if I were forced to go to public school becuase my mother could not pay tuition. Would I still be observant today? Would I have an interest in learning Torah today? Truth to tell, I can't say. In some respects, my high school nearly destroyed my faith in Judaism - and the conflict between the more fundamentalist attitude in the school and my more "modern" attitudes is a conflict that has greatly shaped who I am today. I don't think this blog would exist, for example, if I went to a school like YU which would have been more in-line with my hashkafah. In addition, I could safely say that most of the four years that I spent there were wasted as far as Torah learning goes. I did not really begin learning until I went to yeshiva after high school. In that respect, my high school experience was a vast negative influence on my life.

And yet, would I have gone to yeshiva post-high-school had I not been in a yeshiva during high school? Would I have maintained my level of observence if I were in a public high school with a tutor (I don't know how it would have been paid for) after school? I don't know and, in truth, I don't know if I ever can know.

So, what is the point of all of this remeniscing about the past?

There is a lot of talk around the blogosphere about the fact that minimum tuitions are needed to keep our yeshivos afloat. There has to be the idea that every parent has to commit to a certain financial obligation if yeshivos are going to be able to continue operating. On an intellectual level, I understand the need for this. And yet, even though I understand the need, I cannot, in good conciense, support the idea, simply because I was allowed a free ride for four years in high school (and, I should point out, in a small high school with fewer than fifty students). How could I be a hypocrite and demand that parents pay a minimum amount *regardless of circumstances* when such a policy did not apply to me?

The Wolf

* It should be pointed out that my mother's landlords were the nicest, kindest people you could hope to meet. For the nearly twenty five years that she lived in their house, they did not raise the rent on her -- even though they knew they could have gotten a much higher paying customer.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Yet Another Tznius Letter... Making Promises for God to Keep

Remember when a Lakewood lady received a note telling her that her skirt did not cover her nees [sic] in back?

Well, it seems that yet another anonymous missive has been sent in Lakewood, and this time, the person who sent it must be pretending to be God. The Lakewood Scoop has published a letter* mailed to a childless couple in Lakewood. The letter reads (any typos are mine):

I am writing you because I realize what great parents you would be.

I promise you that if you accept upon yourself to wear much longer skirts and to always dress in loose (even baggy) clothing whether pregnant or not, Hashem will bless you both with children.

Dear husband, it is your obligation to compliment your wife on how beautiful she looks this way. As it is truly beautiful to keep her real beauty just for you personally.

You will both be blessed by Hashem.

Let's put aside for the moment the fact that the person is incredibly insensitive to send such a thing to a childless couple. Let's also put aside for the moment that if the recipient is living in Lakewood, they are probably already observant of the laws of tznius (albeit perhaps not to the letter writer's standards). Let's also put aside the fact that the letter writer is obviously a busy body, assuming that s/he knows what is right not only for her to wear but also for what he has to compliment her on. Let's even assume that the letter writer had the best of intentions in mind when sending the letter -- that s/he meant it l'shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) and truly didn't mean to cause any harm.

Even with all that, I am *still* deeply disturbed by this letter. This person has actually gone ahead and abrogated to himself the ability to promise something in God's name! How the hell does he know what God has in mind for this couple? Who gave him/her license to pedal such theodicic claptrap? Does s/he think s/he can order God around to provide her with a child if she starts wearing longer skirts and he compliments her on it? Who gave this person the right to do such a thing?

You know, it's not often you see the prohibition of a false prophet being transgressed these days, but I think that this letter actually comes close to that line in spirit.

Lastly, I've always wondered about the value of a promise made anonymously from whom you can't collect and to whom you can't turn to for recompense when the promise does not come true. If the writer had guts, s/he identify him/herself** so that the couple can demand recompense if the promise fails to come through.

The Wolf

* I have no idea of the veracity of the story. I'm assuming it's true, but make your own judgments.

** Yes, I'm well aware of the irony of an anonymous writer stating that. But I don't go around making promises that I can't fulfill - and I don't drag God into it either.

Is A Yeshiva Education Really Worth The Money?

Sometimes I truly wonder.

Mayer Fertig, over at the Jewish Star has an article about families that are either considering or have already enrolled their children in public school due to the costs involved with a yeshiva education. For years some of these families have scrimped and saved and foregone certain pleasures for the ideal of sending their kids to a yeshiva. And now, with the current economic climate, it seems that some are just no longer able to do so.

An excerpt:

After years of talk about a tuition crisis, many families that scrimped and sacrificed to send children to yeshiva in the past have hit a financial wall.

“Many children will end up in public school as a result of all this,” said Rabbi Shneur Wolowik, director of Chabad of the Five Towns. He says he is inundated with calls for help from parents who simply have run out of options.

“Parents have to choose between having a home foreclosed on or having a Jewish education. It’s a very tough decision,” he acknowledged.

An email he received this week from a woman in the Five Towns outlined her situation: “They have two children, she’s pregnant with a third, they’ve all but canceled the babysitter, have two old cars and a very simple home. She said it’s either tuition or their home and they can’t be homeless. She did the numbers with me and, unfortunately, she’s right.”

The children are now registered in public school.

It must be very disheartening to have to make the choice between a yeshiva education and paying the mortgage.

However, as a consumer of yeshiva education for many years (both as a student and then as a parent), I sometimes wonder if sending our kids to a yeshiva (in it's current incarnation) is really worth it.

I think we have to ask ourselves -- what are we getting for our money when we pay tuition? Most people would answer in one or more of the following categories:

1. Secular education

2. Judaic education (including the positive influence of rabbeim)

3. Removal from the public school environment and/or immersion in the yeshiva environment.

That being said, I think we have to evaluate how well the yeshivos accomplish these tasks.

I think we can agree that in most cases, a secular education in a yeshiva will not equal an academic education in public school. Yes, I am well aware that there are a few academically superior yeshivos out there and I'm also aware that there are a number of public schools that are not offering the education level they should. But pound-for-pound, I'd have to venture that the average level of secular learning in a yeshiva is lower than in a public school.

Keep in mind, however, that that's not necessarily a bad thing. While some parents will choose a yeshiva based on it's secular academic program, the reality is that of the three reasons to send to yeshiva that I mentioned above, this one comes into play the least. That is because a yeshiva, by it's nature cannot offer in a three or four hour period what a public school offers in a six or eight hour period. But that's fine -- the main focus of a yeshiva (IMHO anyway) should be on Judaic studies anyway; which brings us to our second reason.

We send our kids to yeshiva to receive a Torah education. That is certainly an admirable goal and a valid reason. No matter what our kids do in life -- whether they learn in kollel, become doctors, lawyers, santitation workers or whatever -- we want them to be Shomrei Torah U'Mitzvos and, to do that, you have to have some level of Jewish education.

However, I feel that, for a long time, many yeshivos have been missing the goal here too. Yeshivos compete with each other to see who can be the "frummest" or learn the most dafim of gemara in a year. But in reality, this only benefits the elite few that can really take advantage of it. For example, when I was in 7th grade, we learned the first perek of Kiddushin -- 40 pages of gemara over the course of the year. However, for those of us (like myself) who really were not up to that extra learning, the whole year was largely a waste. Maybe one kid in the class was really capable of maintaining the pace and *really* understanding it. The rest of us simply went along as best we could. Did the yeshiva really accomplish the task of teaching me to learn gemara that year? No -- and it affected me throughout the rest of my elementary and high school years. And while this happened quite a while ago, I'm fairly certain that it still happens today. Ask yourself this question: of the twelfth graders who graduated from yeshivos this past June, how many really know how to learn gemara? My guess is the minority - perhaps the vast minority. If that's the case, perhaps less time should be spent in high school on rishonim and more time on basic gemara.

The third reason that most people send their kids to yeshiva is because they don't want them in a public school environment (or, perhaps because they specifically want them in a yeshiva environment). Is a yeshiva really environment better than a public school environment? Well, I suppose it does have it's advanteges:

1. Violent crime in yeshivos is virtually nonexistent. While crime in the public schools is certainly down, it's not as low as in yeshivos.

2. The chances of your son/daughter meeting and being attracted to someone who is not Jewish is virtually nonexistant in a yeshiva setting.

3. There is likely to be little peer pressure to eat nonkosher foods or do things on Shabbos that are otherwise prohibited.

But beyond that, yeshivos are not the "holy and safe havens" that they are often made out to be. We've all seen that child molestors can operate in the yeshiva system for years -- in public schools, they wouldn't have contact with kids after the first allegation. Drugs are available in our schools. If you send your kids to school to shield them from the influences of television or movies, you are bound for failure. Even sexual innocence can no longer be guaranteed in yeshivos. A few years ago, a classmate of mine informed me that when we were in high school together, there was a dirty magazine or two hidden in the dorm bathroom -- something that I was not aware of at the time -- and this was in a *very* right-wing yeshiva. I'm sure the same thing happens today (except that today it's no longer magazines -- the medium may have changed, but not the message). Heck, one kid (not mine) told me that in his class, kids have been known to experiment sexually with each other!

So, while I suppose there are some advantages to keeping a kid in a yeshiva environment (as deliniated above), it's not quite the panacea that people expect it to be.

All this being said, I sometimes wonder if a yeshiva is really worth all the money that is spent on it.

The Wolf

(NB: Yes, my kids are enrolled in yeshiva for next year.)

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Askanim = Villians??

Did you get the feeling that the askanim were the "villains" in this story as soon as you read the first line? Or is it just my biases?

The Wolf