Monday, November 29, 2010

The Danger of Cynicism

A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. - Oscar Wilde

Reb Ally had a very thoughtful post about leitzanut a few days ago. The only thing that I would like to add - for effect - is this observation:

I have seen quite often people who try to give off an air of aloofness. They maintain a stance as if they are "thinking out of the box" and that their commentaries on the Jewish community are merely satirical, meant to bring out a point. While humor can be an effective vehicle for mussar, that is not the case here.

While it is certainly possible that some of the online "satirists" have good intentions, it is my belief that they are doing more harm than good. Satire stems from cynicism, which ultimately serves to undermine any set of beliefs, no matter how rock solid. Worse, I have noticed that people place great emphasis on so-called "irreverent" personalities - people who are unafraid and unimpressed by power and importance, and say whatever comes to mind without any concern for whom they are speaking to. Rebbe Nachman's story The Sophisticate and the Simpleton is built on such a premise, and we know what the chochom's end is.

What's so great about being irreverent? When I was a kid, we called it chutzpah, and it only got you a sore bottom; nowadays, it means that everybody hangs on your every word, to hear what outrageous thing you'll say next (and that's subject for another discussion: how real are those friends, anyway?).

My main issue with those who would "poke holes in the tapestry" of Jewish living is that there really is no positive outcome from their shenanigans. Even if there were a kernel of truth in their "social commentary" (admittedly, there often is), what do they propose we do to fix it? It doesn't take great wisdom to point out the flaws in a community, but rather to provide solutions.

Years ago, my own blog was a platform for complaining about perceived weakness in Judaism. But I quickly learned that this was not the way to go about affecting change; if I wanted things to be better, then I had to start brainstorming myself, and take a little initiative. Like Reb Ally said, we need to focus on spreading light, not just whining about the encroaching darkness...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pey Dalid show tonight in the Village


Pey Dalid NYC W/ Special Guests. 
The Bitter End 
November 26, 2010 
$10 at the door 
147 Bleeker Street (Bet. Thompson and LaGuardia)
Stonehill-Publicity/Just Us Productions

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Prodigal Sons

I'm in a musical mood, so I decided to post this video:

Rock of David is a band with pedigree. The drummer and singer are sons of Isaac Bitton, drummer of Seventies French rock sensation Les Variations and frontman of Raya Mehemna.

The guitarist is Yudi Piamenta, Yossi's son.

The song is an old piyut from Tunisia, with a psychedelic twist. Yudi's style is very influenced by his father, and yet he brings some nice originality to the table.

 The only thing that irks me is that the singer doesn't know all of the words, which sounds kind of stupid.

Remembering Diaspora.

Recently, Neil Harris posted a great music video from the original Diaspora Yeshiva Band playing one of their classics, "Hafachta".

I am a huge fan of Diaspora - particularly Ben Zion Solomon's songs - and listening to them always brings me back to one of my most precious childhood memories: the Diaspora Yeshiva Band's reunion tour, which paid a visit to sleepy little Cleveland one winter night, a blew a fourth-grader's mind, never to be the same again.

My best friend and I sat a few rows from the stage, near the aisle, in the auditorium of the Frank L Wiley School in University Heights. I had been to the public school several times - for Uncle Moishy concerts, a few Yavne High School productions (that's what happens when your sisters are G.O.'s) - but nothing prepared me for this.

Up until that point, I had never heard anything like DYB, certainly not from a Jewish band. And yet, here were bearded, yarmulke'd men wearing standard yeshiva garb, completely rocking out! With "HU! Yiftach Libeinu", the band kicked off the night and seamlessly ripped through an awesome set. Song after song, the Band brought their inimitable style to the table, as two nine-year-olds head banged, air drummed, and played air bass like stoners at a Rush concert. When Gedalia Goldstein threw both drumsticks high in the air, only to catch them in time for the last crash of the cymbals, I totally lost my equilibrium.

Our third grade rebbe was seated behind us, and got a kick out of the spectacle. Even now, when I see him, he reminds me of that night with a big laugh, " you remember that concert? You and your friend went nuts! It was great!"

I nod in agreement, as always. It was great. And although over the coming years I attended numerous concerts from many talented (and some not-so-talented) bands, nothing compares to that transformative experience.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I came across something in this past week's parsha (Torah portion) that intrigued me, but I wasn't able to find any comments on it:

We're all familiar with the story concerning Dinah's abduction and violation, and the retribution that her brothers visit upon the city of Shechem. At the beginning of the story, after Shechem rapes her, the verse states that "He became deeply attached to Dinah, daughter of Jacob; he loved the maiden..." (Gen. 34:3). By all accounts, after Shechem's assault, he falls - hard - for the object of his depravity.

The reason this is so interesting is because it seems counter-intuitive; as described elsewhere, once the overpowering desire is fulfilled, the object of that lust is no longer appealing. As a matter of fact, the "love" is replaced with an even more intense hate and disgust! "Afterwards Amnon despised her with a great hatred; his hatred was even greater than his love that he had felt for her. So [he] said to her, 'Get up and go away!'" (II Shmuel 13:15)

If this is indeed the case, as explained by the commentaries, then what happened between Shechem and Dinah? What was different?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Nosson Zand - Kosher Hip-Hop

Nosson Zand is an inspired young ba'al Teshuva (lit. "one who possesses repentance" used in reference to returnees to observant Judaism) from Boston, Mass. A Lubavitch chossid, Nosson weaves mystical concepts into his rhymes along with stories about growing up as a troubled youth in Boston, finding meaning in his religiosity, and his aspirations as an individual and as a member of the Jewish nation.

I really enjoy his style; for the most part, his lyrics are clear and understandable, and his earnestness shines through. Matisyahu has taken him under his wing, and the two tour together a lot. Below is a short movie that was produced for the American Film Institute, and won several awards, starring Nosson as the protagonist, a student in yeshiva struggling to maintain a balance between his interests, his yearning for spirituality, and finding his identity...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rabbi Tzvi Aryeh Rosenfeld (1922-1978)

Today (the Eleventh of Kislev) is the yahrtzeit of Reb Tzvi Aryeh Rosenfeld, the man who is primarily responsible for bringing Breslov Chassidus to the English-speaking masses. A tremendous talmid chochom, Rabbi Rosenfeld grew up in Brooklyn, where he went to the famed yeshivas Chaim Berlin and Torah VoDa'as.

Rabbi Rosenfeld was ordained at an early age, and began involving himself in matters of the klal immediately, specifically with the goal of spreading Breslov and making it accessible to a new generation. Interestingly, Rabbi Rosenfeld ordained many young Rabbis, including Rabbi Meir Kahane and his brother. Among his foremost disciples was Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan OBM and Rabbi Chaim Kramer (head of the Breslov Research Institute), his son-in-law. He recorded countless hours of lectures on Breslov Torah which are available on the BRI website, and his contribution to the American Jewish community is immeasurable.

Although he died long before I was born, I still feel the impact he made. If not for his endeavors - carried on by his son-in-law and other students - I don't know where I would be. Their efforts to translate certain staples in Breslov Chassidus allows those who may be initially discouraged or unable to decipher the depths of the sifrei Breslov and continue on their spiritual journey...

Z'chuso Yagein Aleinu.

For more information about Rabbi Rosenfeld, click here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


For the lull in activity on the blog.

I'm in the middle of midterms, and with my Internet being on the fritz most of last week, I am swamped with work to catch up on.

Hopefully things should cool down in the near future...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

True warmth...

Friendship is like stone.
A stone has no value, but by rubbing one stone against another, sparks of fire emerge. 
- Rav Mordechai of Lechovitz
My Internet has been down for the most part of the week.Verizon says it will be a while before all the kinks are worked out, so my posting may be sporadic for the next couple of days...

Sunday, November 7, 2010


One of my favorite niggunim (melodies), ChaBaD or otherwise. I sing this almost every Shabbos, gaining speed with each subsequent repetition until I can't keep up with myself. My oldest loves watching the spectacle; I hope he'll enjoy singing it with me when he gets older...

Kudos to the Echoing String blog, where I originally found this video...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Sudilkover Eitza

B'nei Machshava Tova: The Sudilkover Eitza: "I found this on A Simple Jew's blog. It's worth taking the time out to read, and furthers my previous post about the value of making lists. ..."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Looking for a remedy in all the wrong places

I would first like to issue a disclaimer stating that I usually don't read Mishpacha Magazine - the few encounters that I have had with the publication have given me sufficient reason to avoid reading it, despite buying it every week for my wife, l'kavod Shabbos Kodesh. I don't enjoy the subject matter they choose to feature, the writing style (or lack thereof), and the advertising (although that is not a complaint specifically against Mishpacha; these advertisements are featured in many publications). I do realize that I have a bias, but I have tried to ignore that several times when the cover has caught my eye (e.g. a few months ago, "Breslov Revisited" with Rav Weinberger and Rabbi Chaim Kramer of the Breslov Research Institute) with a subject that had tremendous potential and/or interest to me. I try to read such articles without prejudice and with an open mind.

That said, I found last week's cover story ("Hanging on by a Fringe") about outwardly frum teenagers struggling with serious hashkafic issues to be very disappointing.

While the cover blurb seemed very promising ("It's not about rebellion. It's about emptiness"), hinting that our mechanichim (educators) and Rabbis may finally be getting to the crux of the problem, the article itself ultimately seemed to present the same problems we have been dealing with - in a different form. Instead of an outward rebellion that manifested as dangerous behavior coupled with an external display in terms of appearance, we have kids who "dress the part" but are engaging in the same negligible activities as their "street" counterparts. When trying to determine the cause for such behavior, the interviewees quickly resorted to blaming external sources, including the same old villains: society, the Internet and modern technology that makes it more accessible, etc.

One of the anecdotes provided was about a yeshiva boy (a very good one, according to the article) in his late teens, preparing to go to the Holy Land for a year of learning. He "chanced" upon a neighbor's unprotected unfiltered (because his home naturally was protected with Pentagon level security) Wi-Fi connection, and happened on inappropriate images from websites of ill repute. These images led to a downward spiral that caused him to nearly shirk everything and have a serious spiritual setback.

No one is arguing the fact that the Internet can be an extremely dangerous place, and a filtering system and/or a buddy system like WebChaver is a prerequisite for safe Internet usage. However, to blame the Internet - effectively attributing the causes of our spiritual failings to it - is not only wrong, it increases our risk for more danger, because we are focusing on the wrong issues.

Moreover, some of the "professionals" correctly described the problematic element of indoctrinating kids through the educational system to carry out our religious duties by rote performance. This is obviously an issue, one that has been prevalent for quite some time. And although there is value in initiating children to the performance for the sake of getting them accustomed to it, that is a very basic level that needs to gradually be enhanced and deepened with explanations that suit their maturity to instill in them an appreciation. But by bombarding these kids with all sorts of proofs that illustrate the validity of the Torah is not the answer. Even if such tactics don't further confuse the kids, exacerbating the situation, this approach does not effectively address the real issue at hand, where the core of the problem lies. The intellectual rejection (or even ignorance) of Judaism and the tenets of faith is but a veneer that hides what is really deficient in our youth; no amount of dialectic will be enough to heal the gaping wound that is the essence of our spiritual atrophy, and ultimately it will not be able to staunch the flow.

In short, this article and many like them are only addressing the symptoms, and not the root cause.

It is my firm belief that many of our anxieties, including this problem, can be traced back to a severe lacking in recognizing God in each of our personal lives, and understanding the close relationship we have with Him.

Reb Shimshon Pincus OBM declared many years ago that we have "constructed a yiddishkeit devoid of HaShem", and I believe that this is in part what he was referring to. If each of us were able to feel God's presence in our lives - as a "living" "breathing" entity, as it were - many of our problems would be nonexistent. For all intents and purposes, we have relegated God to abstract, profound thinking, beyond the ken of the layman (it can be argued that this is the case even among the scholarly). Even the terms we use, such as "yira'at Shamayim" create a distance, a curtain between God and ourselves, so that we can comfortably discuss an idea (fear of Heaven) without really giving any thought to Who is in Heaven. This results in a serious emptiness,a God sized hole in our souls.

 If we truly appreciated God's presence in our lives, if we worked on feeling Him and His love, that would be a deterrent for many things, and not out of fear. If I am sensitive to God's feelings for me (so to speak), then the activities and things that create an adverse reaction in our relationship would be anathema to me. The first time the aforementioned teen stumbled on that dirty website, his initial impulse would be to fling away the offending device, because of the sensitivity to the precious nature of his personal relationship with God.

This is not limited to teenagers, either, and is another point that the article missed. As Reb Kalonymos Kalman writes in Chovat HaTalmidim, children base their actions on the adults in their lives, and gauge the suitability of their deeds according to the reactions of their elders. Additionally, children are especially adept at detecting insincerity and hypocrisy - and they learn from it. How else do you explain the people who wake up for vasikin, go to shiur without fail, and then commit the most heinous transgressions? If these people would but once ask themselves "And what does God have to say about this?" with real honesty, they would never step out of place. The numbness that the article should have discussed is present in all of us, at every age level, at every level of religiosity, without exception; it may very well be the avodat haYom for our generation to rekindle this feeling of closeness with God.

If you disagree, just look at the renaissance of Jewish literature concerning this topic that has gained an ever increasing popularity over the past few years. The Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh series, etc. all focus on this important foundation of Torah true Judaism: God loves you, and wants to be a part of your life. He cares for you, and takes care of you, and wants you to be like Him. We must increase our focus on this; if we do, I can almost guarantee that we won't need articles like this one anymore. But forget about all the peripheral issues, forget the proofs and the filters and all the other things that get rid of the symptoms while the body continues to weaken...