5 Words I Despise

I despise very few things on G-d’s green earth, and at first glance words should be no different. If I am indeed a fervent believer in balance, constantly reminding myself that every stick has two ends and stopped clocks etc., why are there still certain arrangements of English letters that make me grind my teeth, roll my eyes, stomp my hooves?

Because some words are used as clichés. The crime of the cliché (in writers’ circles, at least) is a crime of tedium. Rather than engaging the reader’s mind in the difficult process of communication through the fractured meanings of words, the cliché is little more than a placeholder, read as a blank space, conveying nothing but what the reader knows already. The net communicative effect is nil; only recollection dimly flickers when we read clichés. In short, they’re boring and should never inhabit our writing.

But the cliché is also evil. It is a particularly dangerous sort of falsehood which at once claims legitimacy by naming something and simultaneously elicits an emotional, non-intellectual response. It says, “That guy is anti-semitic; you can’t vote for him.” It never gets around to asking what an anti-semite is, or why racism is bad, or whether it is the same as bigotry or loyalty, or how bad it is in relation with other evils. All it does is push a button somewhere deep among our tangled minds’ wires that says, “Bad! Bad! Bad!”

I’m not saying we have to define terms every time we use them. It would be incredibly detrimental to all forms of communication if we had to specifically delineate the boundaries of “anti-semitism” every time we mentioned it. Besides, I have a feeling this would only go on to eventually make the words of its definition into clichés — the actual clichés we see in our day-to-day life actually work as a sort of buffer, protecting more technical/academic/intellectual language from itself draining of meaning.

Nevertheless, if we do not constantly revisit and discuss the meanings of the terms we take for granted, we can eventually attach the  evil of anti-semitism (for example) to  things or people innocent of that transgression, and, through so diluting its meaning, we will be unable to convince anyone of it when it does occur. (In short, if we do not work into turning clichés back into meaningful terms, the entire shared meaning which is language falls apart, and even the most skilled orators or writers are unable to recreate their thoughts in the minds of others, and civilization falls apart. In a way you’re the real hero after all, you linguistic scourge!)

The reader may be thinking, “that escalated quickly.” But at what point does a meme, a touchstone joke, become a cliché? How easy it is to stop thinking about what our words mean! I heard the joke about the chicken crossing the road parodied and retold in so many ways as a youth that the actual humor of the joke, or that it was, indeed, ever meant to be genuinely funny, did not occur to me until I was much older. The joke became only the placeholder of a joke; it became a cliché. Relatively harmless with jokes and memes, the exact same effect touches “racism” and “God”, “right” and “left,” “evil” and “good.”

So when someone says in the context of a serious discussion that they don’t want to “waste time” defining words or categories, I worry that they’re charlatans, playing the intellectual game for ulterior motives. It is the most common and most upfront way of declaring bad faith. It says that they’d prefer the alternative, where we can argue past each other, playing for rhetorical points, without actually knowing what the other person is talking about, in the simplest sense of the term. Their conclusions are probably predetermined, and they fear to find, after their words have been grounded by meaning, that they contradict themselves or are illogical. This is a valid fear.

But enough of me being crotchety. I can already see the comments about defining what “define” means hovering before my eyes, or some-such. You came here for a list, and a list you shall get! Let us turn our eyes upon five words that, like cockroaches, do not look good with the light upon them, and that, suddenly illuminated, will dart off in search of a dark, warm, comforting preconception.

(I’m mostly joking when I say the words need replacing.

It’s not the words.

It’s the thoughtlessness.)

 

1. “Brainwashed” — An Opportunist’s Panic Blanket

When I spoke above about folk who mindlessly wield clichés, I could have called them brainwashed. I didn’t, because it’s a vile word. Unless used in the context of some extraordinary (and I mean extraordinary — actual brainwashing is extremely  rare if it exists at all) circumstance like the bowels of a North Korean torture chamber or somesuch, “brainwashing” is not merely the wrong word, it is purposefully manipulative.

Whenever I hear anyone use it, I instantly demand that they explain the difference between brainwashing and education. If they’re a real whacko or fourteen years old, they might agree that they’re the same thing, and then at least we could talk about education. But at least we’re no longer pretending that just because someone has a different view than our own, they must have been erased and rewritten by some sinister force looking to stay in power (Moriarty? The Elders of Zion? The Secretary of Education? ). Most of the time, they just disagree with you, and yes, education impacts our opinions. Byt no one wants to ban it outright.

Suggested Replacement(s): ill-informed, miseducated, ignorant, wrong, duped.

 

2. “Jewy” — The Latest Debacle

Not actually a cliché, but still sad, I don’t know where this word came from. It can burn in a Meah Shearim dumpster for all I care. This is the new word Jew-kids use instead of “Jewish.” What was wrong with “Jewish,” you ask? Nothing, and that’s the problem. You see, “Jewish” is merely a statement of fact, a fact that to Jews at least has no inherent negative connotations. So Jews who are feeling tired of the whole Jew thing have settled on “Jewy,” an irritating diminutive that still conveys your disgust at the concept while looking dazzling in pink. Instead of the classic “Zionist Jew greed,” Hello Kitty would say “Jewy Greed.” Doesn’t that make it sound nicer?

What? It’s worse because it’s a negative term masquerading as a neutral one? That’s crazy talk.

Suggested Replacement(s): Jewish, Jew, or your choice of honest anti-semitic epithet.

 

3. “Hater” — Moronic Reductionism

I don’t mind “haters gonna hate” as a pleasant song lyric or the like. But some people actually took it seriously as a life philosophy, which makes me want to individually pull out all my remaining hairs from the follicle. When you say, “Bernie for President,” and I reflect with vivid brilliance that, “I think the populist impulse driving Sanders’s momentum is similar to that of Donald Trump and neither are good for our country,” “Haters gonna hate” (“hater’s”? is it “hater (is) gonna hate” or “haters (are) gonna hate”?) is not a valid response. “Haters gonna hate” is an intellectual forfeit. To me, it’s trolling plain and simple.

First of all, hate is not necessarily a bad thing and is on the contrary incredibly appropriate and even necessary in some contexts. On the other hand, it is an incredibly powerful emotion that I think most of us feel quite rarely. To conflate disagreement, dislike, disgust, or distaste with hatred lessens the power of the term.

This image sums up the degree to which the term “haters” ought to be taken seriously, and is redolent with a multi-layered ironic aftertaste that I find quite delightful:

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Suggested Replacement(s): “Dear Sir/Madam, I find it unfortunate that we diverge in our opinion on the matter; alas, would that I could argue further, but I must go on down to dat lit club wit crony and get turnt.”

 

4. “Nice” — The Empty Vessel

“Nice” is the ultimate cliché. It signifies nothing but utter milquetoast inoffensive blandness, and even that description makes it sounds more interesting than it is. On its own, blandness wouldn’t be so terrible. But people think it means something, like when your Rabbi has a “nice tie,” or he tells his son that peeing in the sink is “not nice.”

The obvious question is whether the tie is nice to the same degree that the boy’s urinary discretion is unnice. Of course, the tie might actually be the harbinger of a messianic utopia, since other things that I’ve heard called “not nice” include poverty, Cards Against Humanity, George Carlin, and the holocaust. This reveals the actual purpose of the term, which acts as a sort of uniform placeholder in small talk that will never hurt anyone nor, indeed, say anything.

How many times has the chivalric Jewish greeting ritual (“What’s your name?” “Tzvi.” “Where are you from?” “Oz.” “…Are you single?”)  terminated with one party muttering, “Very nice, very nice”? If anyone were paying attention, they’d call you Roger Daltry.  But “nice” is easier. It lets you pay no attention. It is to language what the schwa is to phonetics. It is the sound you make when you are asleep. Disgraceful.

Suggested Replacement(s): Try these.

 

5. “Leadership” — The Brain Taser

I eat a lot. I have a large apetite; have since I was little. Similarly, I have a sort of mind apetite. I like learning, okay? Also since I was little. But my mind apetite has these anamalistic habits, like Pavlov’s dogs. It knows what it likes and what indicates a hearty meal on the way, and what signifies intellectual junk food that will leave me hungry again in ten minutes.

One of the surest indicators that something intellectually anemic is to follow is the term “leadership.” I don’t mean as a passing mention, or even as part of a discussion of some specific action or policy. My problem begins when this benighted term shows up in advertising, or seminars, or advertising for seminars. I hate it when it’s used in businessese, that strange foreign language half of LinkedIn is written in. For me, “leadership” is representative of a whole class of words we hear so often, with so little actual meaning attached that they merely pass through our minds like white noise, chaos that grabs our attention and wrestles our critical faculty into submission through sheer force. A stun-gun to the brain that says, “Don’t even try digesting this; just give me your money.”

“Leadership” has, for most of my life, hovered on the edge of English, barely coherent, too meaningless to truly seem threatening, the employee that never says anything until he burns the building down. Maybe no one has ever bothered explaining the word to me and I’m totally off-base.

But I’ve yet to find a discussion of this term that describes a concrete reality and isn’t reaching for my wallet in some way that we’re usually too numbed to notice…

Suggested Replacement(s): Something in English.

Even Though Judaism Broke My Heart

As the day of my Bar Mitzvah drew near, my father impressed three things upon me:

1. Never to fool myself.
2. Never to fool somebody else.
3. Never to allow myself to be fooled.

~ Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson

He ostensibly came around to the yeshiva to visit old friends but actually, I think, to make sure the place was safely receding into the distance like a police car in the rearview mirror. My room would be his last stop and we’d shoot the breeze about everything except why he left and why he still hadn’t left, why he was still coming around, still paying attention. Our conversation danced around landmines like Israeli politics and his shaved face and the latest frum contretemps, and he’d return home with another brick in our friendship layed slipshod so the cold wind of the world came through the chinks in its walls.

It got better when I started buying books. I had a big windowsill back then, broad enough to be a shelf. From its left side extended my holy books in Hebrew and Yiddish. So it was for five years. Then, one week, with no great fanfare and no mouth of hell splitting my floor tiles, the English books began to sprout from the right side. Gödel, Escher, Bach. The Elements of Style. A History of the Jews. How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. Yom Kippur a Go Go. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Code. A History of Western Philosophy. Fear and Trembling.

He’d pick them up and leaf through them and we’d talk about what I’d read and how I felt about it. I always felt he respected my intelligence, and in secular interests we found common ground. (My mini-collection on atheism drew a spontaneous “Are you going to a convention or something?”)

I felt uncomfortable.

I felt uncomfortable because one week, with no great fanfare, I made a decision to revisit the pursuit of worldly intellect that enriched my youth, and I no longer knew what separated me from the beardless man who stood next to me, a well-dressed and well-coiffed law school applicant so far from my brother whose first day of Yeshiva was my first day of Yeshiva all those years ago in Jerusalem.

We came to Yeshiva with more or less the same goal: To find The Truth and pursue it the way only teenagers could. We learned together, we attended the same classes and farbrengens and trips. We swung chickens over our heads and wrapped tefillin on strangers and talked about G-d and His designs late into the night. I went home for Passover and let my parents know I wouldn’t be attending Georgia Tech in the fall. I had tasted life and had no use for  computer science.

Our studies continued. Together, we left Jerusalem for New Jersey, to learn in a “regular” (that is, frum-from-birth) Yeshiva. Exposed was the face of the beast: teachers who could barely speak English, hordes of jaded students compelled by their parents to continue their religious studies, a cheder full of feral kids, every conversation pervaded with gossip and scandal, sons speaking of their fathers with detached analysis, a culture of frugality bordering on the deceptive and the larcenous, rabbis who either convinced themselves the majority of their students were interested in spiritual pursuits or who otherwise gave in to despair and avenged their idealism by confiscating phones, books, laptops.

I devoted myself to finding the silver lining, and I did, for a while. I know too well that love of someone who doesn’t love you can only go so far. My appreciation for this life began to crumble. So did his, I found out later.

It only got worse. After a disillusioned summer in upstate New York, I went away as a student emissary/teacher to Tel Aviv. I had the toughest year of my life trying to relate to unrelatable people and to stay motivated. He remained in Jersey.  He watched the faculty of his Yeshiva (including one of his heroes) spin out of control with fatwa after fatwa meant to bring the students in line.

I came back to the States and he was gone.

***

I pressed forward – another year of Yeshiva, this time for my rabbinical ordination, my smicha. It was the natural next step after shlichus, and I’d convinced myself all the problems I saw were Israeli problems (many of them were, but not most of them, not exclusively). It was another tough year. The learning was beyond me and the rest of my life loomed on the horizon, begging the constant question, was it all a mistake? Where will you be going next year? What are you going to do with yourself? Do you even like anyone in the community you’re a part of? Do you relate to them in any way?

In a measured voice and with a slight but insistent angling of the head I learned from my Talmud teacher in Jerusalem, I would insist to myself, “I do relate to them in some way. G-d is real. Chassidus is real. It’s all true. This was not a mistake. I will not give up.”

I gradually read the books on the left side of the shelf for pleasure less and less, and the right side sat empty.

The crisis came halfway through that year. The long night when I got off the phone with my rabbi and lay weeping in bed, trying to figure out if my investment had been for nothing, if I had made a terrible mistake that only led me away from normalcy and happiness.

Almost two years later, I’m still here. I’m also back in Jerusalem spending a lot of my day trying to help others taking this same path.

What conclusion did I come to that night? Why did I remain? How can I encourage others toward disillusionment and heartbreak?

The first thing I realized: everybody is looking for something. We have vacuums we must fill one way or another, and we find that there are things in Judaism that satisfy us, be it the peace and warmth of its Shabbos, the  elegance of its theology, its salvation from the nihilistic void of existence. We become attached to these things; they become to us like a lover’s face, a memory of the first walk we took in the rain together, huddled under the umbrella, one.

Then times become tough; there is always more than we bargained for; the parts we love cannot be cut out from the undesirable whole that does nothing for us, and that we begin to resent. The things we once loved become the lies we tell to convince ourselves our love continues.

(Even now I still have these moments. I was in Beitar last Shabbos, walking to shul at ten in the morning, the sun warming my face, the sweet breeze blowing off the patchwork farms of the valley, apartment buildings thrust into the blue sky like white sails, so bright you almost had to look away, and a little boy ran in front of me, crossing the calm road with a bottle of wine for kiddush to his father who stood erect like a prince, wrapped in his pure tallis and waiting for his son and the sanctification of the day, their world held gyroscopically still in reality’s storm, and I felt a pang of longing in my heart that carried me to Shacharis and beyond. It shook me. And then it faded into pale memory, and I became once again unconvinced about my choices, and the question ate at me more: Was it all a mistake?)

But it was not for nothing we walked this road. We have merely outgrown our initial impressions, and what we initially loved has been left behind. True, it does not feel like growth. It feels like pain. The little problems with Judaism accrue and become big problems; what you used to overlook is now all you can see. But the problem here is not Judaism changing. It is the way it no longer fits in the box we initially imposed.

And then comes the pivotal moment with its cleaving question: Were you merely blind before? Were you a fool? Is it true that only fools fall in love?

***

If you think you were only a fool, then you must cut your losses and move on. This was never meant to be, and the entire endeavor was merely an expression of your own frailty.

If you were not a fool, then you can come to love it as you loved it before. You were willing to ignore the faults of your beloved because her face was so beautiful. It is now time to do it again, to find the beauty. But it will not happen on its own; that is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a child’s thing, the serendipitous interlocking of need and fulfillment. The difference between adults and children is that adults cannot rely on serendipity. We must work to find congruence.

We start by shedding our preconceptions. What we used to love about her was a projection of our own needs, and we can’t pretend it’s who she is any longer. We must take her on her own terms, pimples and all.

It’s all in the words. When we start out we say “Shabbos” and feel a rush of joy. But the word wears out, for what is a word but dead letters, sounds forced into an uneasy partnership and bound with imposed meaning. After enough time, it starts to sound like nothing at all, and after more time we start resenting it – “I have a soul; stop mouthing at me! I need to comprehend; the word means nothing to me.” Shabbos has become a parroted cliché. It has become death. Not death by terrorist, 7 o’ clock news; death deep in the Amazon where no one’s around to film it, death as a force of nature, a mute wall, a brute fact.

We have two options. We can either get rid of the word and go searching for some other sounds we hope will not eventually rot in our mouths, or we must find some way to reinvigorate this one. We must find a new definition of “Shabbos.” And what, I thought on my bed that night, is Chassidus, if not a long series of redefinitions, an insistent angling of the head that says, “No, it means this.” And those definitions by nature of their divine origin are of infinite depth.

The upswing: What we hate about it is not it, it’s what we had to call it when we were small. It is not foolish; we were foolish when we met it. Shabbos does not mean what we thought it did. It means something deeper, something G-dly, and in that G-dly reality there is room, say, to not feel bad about your hasty prayers and do feel great about the wonderful food you look forward to all week. From a deeper perspective, that too is Shabbos.

Romance lives, to the extent that the child is the father of the man. As long as there is still some room to expand the definition of our terms, there will always be a reason to stay.

So I teach Baalei Teshuva. I’m not selling a flawed product; I’m selling a deeper and truer place within themselves. I am selling them true love. The job is not to protect them from disillusionment and heartbreak. The job is to give them the intellectual and theological tools to deal with it when it comes. The bumps in the road are part of the journey, the feeling of their own skin too tight on their bodies. We cannot split the sea for them, but we will give them a staff.

When I asked my friend if he was okay with my writing a piece about us, he asked if he had anything to worry about. I told him no. I think we see things from similar perspectives, now. Though in some external ways we come down on opposite sides of the table, we are at least both sitting at it. We have each, in our own way, shucked our childish pursuits, and taken steps to becoming men in this world, men who aren’t fools, men who live according to their convictions. Are we really so different, after all?

My definitions have stretched so I no longer feel distant from my friend in law school. Every day, we seem ever more two sides of the same coin; in fact, every day, everything seems like a side of it. When your definitions are robust, all of a sudden G-d can get in everywhere. On both sides of the shelf, in both friends, and in that mysterious interstitial space that separates all matter and unites it.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.