I Saw G-d on Facebook

We do not, in Judaism, agree with the philosophers that greatness is greatness no matter who or what possesses it. Korach erred to think he could bear Moshe’s greatness as easily as Moshe and Aharon’s holiness as easily as any Kohen. In this, he was a heretic, ultimately denying creation ex nihilo, that Moses could be a radically different creation than Korach. So I do not mean to say that a Facebook comment can be genuinely great per se like (l’havdil) a work of Torah.

But if it is no longer a “Facebook comment per se,” if Korach ceases to be Korach by becoming Moshe’s man, then true greatness is possible, the greatness of the inifite. All finite things hold an emptiness at the center called bittul, a negative space that may contain the infinite. Through bittul, the non-great may become great. When we talk about a great FB comment, we’re talking about one that’s becoming nothing inside and out.

 

Here’s what it looks like: I met a severe Yeshiva student on one of my wanderings. He was of European slimness, shorter and younger than average in the study hall, and brilliant. He pursued Judaism with the dangerous fanaticism of a broken-hearted youth.

The ‘danger,’ such as it is, lies in the multi-layered nature of the pit, the hole inside that Judaism will fill, because Judaism must, because if it doesn’t, what am I? Many souls contain a Machpelah, a cave within a cave, a cave above a cave. Only Judaism fills the most bottomless hole, the cavity closer to us than our very being. We can plug smaller, more superficial spiritual needs with worldly pleasures, therapy, art, friends and family, secular knowledge, political activism, or a gratifying job. Sometimes the upper chamber may even be filled by time, the spiritual agonies of adolescence calloused over by the 20s.

The trick of the hole-filling Baal Teshuva, the returnee to Judaism looking to satisfy a need, is to realize that beneath the sinkholes opening along our contingent path through circumstance lies a broader existential tale tied to our very being. We possess emptiness born not of the path chosen for us but of we who walk it, that deep inner vacuum to which Judaism speaks, the infinite desolation that only G-d can make whole. Torah and Mitzvos will contextualize the other problems, the ones of nature and nurture, and may repair them at the level of what they are. They will transform us from biological beings dealing with problems into G-dly souls wrestling with them. But all direct changes to the form of our questions do not require Judaism. Self-discipline and a regimented life come from the army; self-help books and gurus can transform your attitude; medication and diet help depression and anxiety; friends and family give us love.

One of Chassidus’s penetrating insights is that to live a G-dly life is different from conquering the form of your troubles. To heal the animal soul—the path of Mussar/Ethical teachings—may be a prerequisite to the work of the G-dly soul, but it is not that work. The Baal Shem Tov revealed that a commandment performed for a reward demotes the commandment to below the reward. So, too, if the point of the commandment is self-improvement, it elevates the animal traits above the mitzvah. A Korach cannot become a Moses from the outside, by slowly improving his Korach-itude, because Moses is not merely a more ethical Korach. Korach becomes Moshe by first becoming nothing, by finding the infinite emptiness within and introducing it into his life. He does this no matter which contingent foibles and character flaws lie in his way.

It should not surprise us that many a young Baal Teshuva, thinking it’s Chassidus they seek, join a yeshiva and start studying the Tanya. They soon discover the Tanya addresses only a single problem, the union of the souls with the divine. They then remain in a frustrating stalemate until something else shows up to solve their problem. Occasionally it is Mussar that saves the day. More often, it’s one of the other hole fillers, and, their itch scratched and their issue resolved, they stop seeking G-d. My acquaintance, the young zealot, seems to have done just that. He now often posts pictures of himself, bare-headed and often bare-chested, luxuriating in an exotic locale, to Facebook.

 

There was another student in that same yeshiva where I met the first. Where the first was young, this second was older than the yeshiva average. Where the former was fanatical, the latter was disinterested. The first was hungry, seeking satisfaction from every page of the Talmud, every letter of each Chassidic discourse. The latter seemed to hate everyone and everything about our little school, often missing classes, arriving at strange hours with odd friends to study the talks of the Previous Rebbe of Lubavitch in Russian-accented Hebrew. The only things the two students had in common were their distinctive approaches to yeshiva life apart from the established order, tormented spirits, and a penchant for cigarettes.

The Russian (let’s call him) was, without doubt, the most abrasive person I met in perhaps my entire yeshiva career. He had no air of glory about him whatsoever, no sense that, by participating in Judaism, he was doing something noble or extraordinary. He spoke with all the tact of a Moscoloid street rat and had physically assaulted a non-zero number of his fellow students. He had studied philology in university back in the Motherland and spat out the names of philosophers like curses. He liked the Kuzari and alcohol. I think he is an orphan, but he found no loving family amongst us; if he has a void in that sense, it’s hard to imagine we were filling it with our constant exasperation at his moods. He was no Moses (lacking the piety) and no Korach (lacking the delusions of grandeur and the pictured path to fulfillment). He was more a Dasan or Aviram, kicking over blocks for fun, and you wanted to ask him, “Why are you here?” However, in retrospect, it is clear he possessed the knack of every successful fulfillment-seeking Baal Teshuva. He could be here because he was here. Dogged, senseless, persistence without reason or clear reward is the trick of the Baal Teshuva, and you can’t teach it. It appears in other areas of life aglimmer with the sheen of the infinite. The advice for writers, I have learned, is to write. The ingredient of cake, when G-d makes it, is cake. That which is created from nothing has no explanation. Moses can be Moses only because he is, and this mystery the Russian embodies.

 

Today, checking my Facebook feed, I see two truly great words, words that ring with the full hollowness of a Chassidic story. You must recognize those involved, read the words in an irritated Russian accent written to an old non-friend, a youth from yeshiva. The Russian was never there when the youth slaved over the holy books, was not around when he sculpted a shining new face for himself in the night, was not awake when he closed the book, picked up his jacket, and quit. But beneath the latest in a string of frivolous photos of a new life, the Russian has commented,

with the mournful triumph of the eternally satisfied,

with the confident disregard of those who cannot break free from the bundle of life even if they wished,

with the greatness of those who are empty and thus are Moses,

with the longing of an inner cave so long-buried the explorers have stopped looking for it,

with the laconic, mystified bemusement of those who have suffered worse yet never managed to leave:

“תחזור כבר”;

“Come back already.”

My Thoughts When You Quit Observant Judaism

Maybe you’re right.

If you’re right, why do I stay? Joining you would be moral.

You’re not right; you can’t be. All of a sudden, a profound personal philosophy? Yesterday you were chugging the power hour.

Oh, you quote professors now.

Did you specifically learn new Torah sources to reject them? What books have you been reading? I must read them. I must not read them.

Epissedoffmology.

How can you do this to me? You call me blind to everything you see.

Am I supposed to just sit here while you mock what’s most important to me? I’ll wipe that self-righteous grin off your faces.

I can convince you to stay.

I can martial arguments I find convincing. I will put them forward in my most reasonable voice. My tone says, “You’re hurting me.”

At least you’re now following the authentic Judaism of the Talmudic sages to the letter, unhindered by the reforms of Moses.

If it’s all just a choice, choose to be with me.

I love you and everything, but stop pretending this changes nothing.

There are three of us now, you, me, and the Torah, and you cannot speak without sounding jealous, but I remember when the Torah was our love-letter, not my mistress.

I choose Torah over you? Who is this “you” and when was it born?

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I can’t convince you of anything.

Faith is all I have, and I cannot give it to you. Before, you saw that as wealth. Now, you think I’m poor. I have not changed.

Retreat, retreat. To the small keep, inside.

I can roll my eyes as high as you.

We can still be friends. If we can’t still be friends, you’ll say it’s my fault.

You say you’re “just asking questions” but they all run in one direction.

Well, this hurts.

Maybe I don’t get it because I wasn’t raised religious.

You’re so powerfully authentic, to question. Thank you for joining the club. Thank you for questioning every day, for struggling, for plumbing ever-deeper into what belongs to you. Oh, you’ve left.

I liked you better as I imagined you, sitting before the feat of our shared sages, appreciating the same light, before you opened your mouth and leaped from the tapestry demanding that you, too, were to be encountered.

Repent before me.

Why am I not leaving?

Maybe I’m brainwashed.

I don’t think I’m brainwashed.

You say I’m full of wishful thinking.

I don’t think so.

Don’t you see it’s personal for me?

Why is it all so personal? I need it to be. I hate that it is.

It’s all just labels. We’re really the same, maybe? I hope it doesn’t talk about souls anywhere in Judaism.

I can see in your eyes you’re ready for the part of the movie where we realize loving each other is more important than our intransigent ideological commitments. I’m not ready. I hate those movies.

I probably sin more than you do, but for me it’s unofficial.

You probably care more about Judaism than I do.

You probably have a deeper relationship with G-d than I do. The screenwriters were always on your side.

It’s all just group identity, and you didn’t care to stay in my group. What now? Shall I impale you upon a spear?

I can’t wait for you to abandon the restrictive social codes of religious society so you can acquire better restrictive social codes you apply to all my actions. When did I ever judge you, by the way?

I have never encountered more restrictive rules in my life than in trying to navigate a conversation with you since the fall.

Perhaps I’m your heretic.

I’m sorry. I’m not at fault here. Just thoughts.

You make me feel every time I mention Judaism I’m an evangelist. I hope you’re fooled by my smile/grimace when you bring up psychology.

How can we be having a genuinely angry argument over Artificial Intelligence? The joke is obvious.

You didn’t stick around long enough to observe the strange unfolding of the blossoms from bitter and rejected seeds.

You can’t be fixed. Judaism can’t be fixed for you. Fixing them is breaking them. And you’re meant to be an end, not a means.

You can bring the horse to water but you can’t make him read a book without a million catty comments.

Agony! Can we not step into the past, wrap it around ourselves, and settle among its answers? Religion comes between us? What we imagine comes between us. The future comes between us.

Maybe I don’t get it because I never did hallucinogens.

You tie it to who you are, lay down before me, and dare me to tread on you, but you crouch behind objectivity like a shield. The day is young, but, before sunset, you’ll pick one.

I don’t want to think I’m better than you, but if you dare me…

Even the old songs wither in your mouth. Not because you intend it. Because I can’t slip my mind, in order to find you, past the ironic remove at which you’ve set yourself.

You seem not to like it when I take your choice too seriously.

Why are you still living in this neighborhood?

You don’t want me to define you even by the definitions you provide. You want to float unmoored in pure self-definition. You want to be worshipped, not evaluated.

I know the way is true. I still don’t doubt it’s true. Yet we also stand apart, and so I pause. Must it last forever?

Fine, don’t stay for the experience. Stay for the struggle with the experience. Fine, stay for the struggle with the struggle. Stay for the struggle with the struggle with the –

Am I supposed to pretend I don’t want you to be observant?

I disagree but can’t argue.

Maybe I don’t get it because I’m not handsome enough.

There is some ending to this story where you come over to my side, right?

I can step back and see how we’re united in our opposition. I can step back further and see how that’s not good enough. Stop me when I hit a wall, if you still believe in those.

G-d has made it in such a way that it matters a lot that you’re doing this together with me.

Why can’t we be together?

Why don’t I leave?

Maybe you’re right.

But I won’t.

What do you know about being religious that I don’t?

At least you can go to those deep rebel farbrengens without being sniffed out as a fascinated impostor.

I’m insulted.

What about my worship of G-d was so fake and so horrible it couldn’t inspire you to stay?

You’re going to swear a lot now to prove how real you are, aren’t you?

At least you made a choice.

Infinite questions, no acceptable answers.

Let’s play the game where we guess which book fuels today’s rebellion.

Almost anything is forgivable, except that you’re more forgiving than me.

I hope it changes nothing.

In the end, perhaps we’re all in the cradle or the grave.

You say my whole life is built upon a mistake you made in your teens.

Make me hate you, then explain how it’d all be so much more peaceful if no one believed in anything.

The one who gets angry first loses.

Are you going to be a good person now? Weird. I thought you were a good person from the day we met.

I’m sorry.

It’s a mitzvah to love you, to rebuke you, to draw you closer. If I don’t do any of these things, and let the relationship atrophy, perhaps finally, finally, we would be alike.

I hold out secret hope that I’ll stumble over the key to winning you over. You hold out the same hope. This is how we love each other now.

Maybe I care about these things more than I love you. Perhaps it was a conditional love. Perhaps it was what we had in common that kept me from your depths. Perhaps this is our long-short road.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

20 Things I Didn’t Learn In Jewish Day School

In eight years of modern orthodox elementary and middle school and four years of trans-denominational high school, I never learned:

1. The flag of each tribe. (Each of the twelve Hebrew tribes marched in the desert under its own flag, with unique colors etc. Despite the Hebrews being very cool and interesting, by eighth grade I would’ve been better-versed in the seven forms of lightsaber combat than the twelve tribes if left to my schooling alone. But, praise to the G-d almighty who cares for all His creatures, my grandmother of blessed memory bought me a set of books called The Little Midrash Says, the greatest influence on my life as a Jew.)

2. Why there is no good kosher pizza. (If you pull your kids out of public school you’re a bad person because you’re leaving the less-fortunate kids to suffer, but if you pull your kids out of Pizza Time and put them in Di Fara you’re just being practical and wanting what’s best for little Liam.)

3. That Jews died to keep their yarmulkes on. (Despite a minor obsession on the part of teachers with the origins in custom of a fully-codified and binding law concerning male Jews covering their heads, in school I never really ran into the stories of how far Jews would go defending the “custom.” Nazis would throw yarmulkes on the ground and make their owners stomp on them, and G-d help you if you resisted. These are not things to be cast aside if you’re on the school soccer team. Oh well. Good thing I hated sports.)

4. Why Gush Katif was, regardless of one’s politics, a tragedy. (I learned all my empathy from the way Jews spoke about fellow Jews when I was in high school. I’m famous for it.)

5. Does G-d exist? (I would’ve loved to see certain teachers fight over this. Preferably to the death.)

6. Why to care about Zionism. (Everything was HaTikvah this and Yom HaAtzmaut that, but it was weird talking about a country when the United States itself was basically a non-starter, even in modern orthodox school. It would’ve been cool to examine the various reasons for and against Zionism prior to the founding of the state of Israel. It would’ve perhaps kept my friends in high school from calling Jewish History class propaganda.)

7. What the federation is, and why it’s important. (Accepted as axiomatic; a sort of First Cause, as it were. I immigrated from South Africa; what did I know why my parents never read the Atlanta Jewish Times or went to play basketball at the JCC?)

8. Why do we all watch Saturday Night Live? (Another confusion stemming from the immigrant experience; another axiom.)

9. About gefilte fish and cholent. (I don’t need a full class on Jewish cuisine (although why not?) but I’ve never forgotten when in that same Jewish History class those foods of the shtetl were explained socio-economically without any reference to the benighted and backward pre-enlightenment Jewish Law that gave their impoverished lives rich meaning (that today we can barely comprehend) and prohibited removing the bones from fish on Shabbos.)

10. Why anyone would fall for a false messiah. (Messiah shmessiah, when are we getting Hamilton tickets?)

11. Why Jews didn’t and don’t accept Jesus. (Easier to avoid; more educational – and perhaps threatening to certain denominations – to confront.)

12. How there are world-historical intelligences among Jewish religious thinkers, and we should be proud of them. (Einstein, yes; even Freud, in high school, got a nod or two. But Rashi we never learned with a sense of awe or adulation; I can’t recall ever studying a mind-boggling Ramban until adulthood. We were never given a sense that Maimonides and his interlocutors are among the all-time big hitters of philosophy generally. The extent to which his genius in particular is a blazing beacon illuminating the sky of Judaism that falls to earth as the precious-beyond-measure living heritage of every single boy and girl making out on the soccer field…was not emphasized.)

13. That Jews are represented in cults far beyond their percentage of the population. (Is something wrong with us? Are we all here or all there? Perhaps in the odd yearnings and impulse to rebellion we find some hint of the fundamental Jewish spirit that might help to define what it means to be uniquely Jewish in America in the 21st century. Perhaps you should’ve told us to be afraid of cults. I got my revenge now. I went to Yeshiva and joined the group that my 9th grade history teacher told me ‘could keep their messiah.’ I have yet to achieve her level of understanding; I don’t drink enough Kool Aid.)

14. How the Maccabees were religious fundamentalist zealots and they ought to be honored anyway. (What I did learn in high school, hilariously, was that Jews should be embarrassed for killing all those non-Jews at the end of the book of Esther. Calling our Jewish homage to the (Hellenistic, Antiochus-providing, naked wrestling, pig-sacrificing, Zeus-statue-erecting) Greek Olympics the “Maccabi Games” is the equivalent of calling the WWII Memorial “A Testament to Aryan Resolve” but killing all those Persians before they killed us is the challenging part of our history. School, man.)

15. About the struggle for modern Hebrew. (Someone did a book report on Ben Yehuda once, but the full topic, his isolation, what he put his family through, the opposition of many Jews to the return of Hebrew, and ultimate triumph for better or worse of a uniquely revived ancient language was glossed over. Would’ve helped me focus in what felt like twenty years of Hebrew class.)

16. Why Judaism is not a misogynistic religion. (I was almost too lazy to Google just to get the devil’s advocate position, though I did, and it was very interesting.)

17. Whether anyone was opposed to Reform Judaism, and why. (Implied would be that there was a time before Reform existed, or perhaps Judaism was always in some way Reform, and this could now be explained. If Reform is a new thing, the case would have to be made for why this new thing is now Judaism; that would lead to a conversation about the Rabbinic process, whereupon I could at least share the things I had to Google so maybe in Twitter arguments nowadays my classmates couldn’t say they never heard any sort of defense of ‘Orthodoxy.’)

18. Why so many of our great grandparents cared about or respected the Talmud. (“Rabbinic Literature” implies that you have to care about this as much as you have to care about Hamlet, and no one cares about that anymore. (I do! Thank you Mr. Robson.))

19. Why anyone could possibly object to playing basketball on a Shabbos afternoon inside an Eruv. (This was, for me, the last straw. I thought I was crazy, because I went to your schools, I went to your churches, I went to your institutional learning facilities. I wasn’t the one that was crazy. All I wanted was a Pepsi.)

20. Why Jewish day school was invented, when it was invented, what came before it, and whether it’s a good idea. (I don’t actually expect them to teach this. It’d be like discussing prison reform with the inmates. But I certainly didn’t learn it, and for that, it rounds out this Stupid Buzzfeed-style List.)

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why They Lie To You In BT Yeshiva

The reason you’re lied to in Baal Teshuva Yeshiva is that Judaism is not a cult.

People think a cult is full of falsehood and deception but I’m not sure this is quite right. A cult doesn’t need to lie to you because it does not consider you a thinking human being. A cult manipulates you to be unable to tell reality from fiction and then sells you a truth, a big truth, a truth so overwhelming and simple that the pains and complexity of society and family fade away and life is permeated by a diffuse, passive light compelling and inexorable as the fall, before which the candle of your own soul pales, spits, and gutters…

A cult uses your capacity for attaining the truth to destroy you. Science, with its narrow vision, has the privilege of sharing facts without much concern for transcendent truth. But forging true observant Jews is not a science. It is an art, and art uses lies to tell the truth.

Take, for example, a common conversation from the study hall. Nathan (please call him Nesanel now) insists he’s ready to start wearing black and white and growing a beard. What is a responsible teacher in a position of authority to tell him?

If the Yeshiva is a cult, the Rabbi tells him that he has actually waited too long, because the truth is attained through action and the dress code is one of the actions. Indeed, those who pursue enlightenment must wear black and white; this is the shape that all true adherents take, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a heretic from the outer darkness who wants to use word games to keep you from the truth. Your friends or family might object to this move, but really there is only one thing that matters, and sacrifices must be made if you wish to achieve it. The other students here are too stuck in their own minds to come to this wisest of conclusions, and once you’ve made this change, your superior decision will be pointed out to all the others as an example.

If the Yeshiva is an (ideal) institute of science or some other secular understanding, the Rabbi will present the predicted effects of wearing black and white on Nathan and his environs, based on past examples. A dress code of sorts is excellent for social cohesion in the Yeshiva environment but may have adverse effects on family life. As for the truth as expressed in the actions beyond their practical effects, one wonders about it with a sunny and detached agnosticism; what is the measure of sincerity, or faith, or being an authentic Jew? Who can say? (Some even go so far as declaring all truth to be action itself, that fact and truth are entangled and pragmatism is the highest philosophy.) Until truth can be quantified it does not exist for practical purposes; take your action or don’t, and witness the consequences.

If the Yeshiva is devoted to the delicate art of forming real Jews, the Rabbi’s answer must be complicated, for the same reason art must use lies to tell the truth (as I’ve written about before). If a cult believes that Truth demands the death of the individual, and the “facts-based” approach will not approach the Truth at all, the goal of a true religion is to find some sort of union (or at least common ground) between the Truth and the individual.

The Truth is ineffable and simple, and therefore cannot be communicated, even to the perhaps paltry extent the Rabbi has attained it.

The individual is complex, communicates only through fragmented words, and is looking for an answer.

What follows is a game. It is one of those delightful games, like Petals Around The Rose, in which victory entails figuring out the rules of the game. The Truth, by its very nature, cannot be communicated. And so the lies begin.

The Rabbi will say to do it, or not to do it, or cite some source on the topic at hand. Then, later, in public, they may say the decision made was the wrong one, and advocate the opposite. They will say that the truth is found through both, or the truth is found through neither (but one decision is still the right one). They’ll think that perhaps Nathan should wear black and white but will not tell him so because they don’t want it to be interpreted as their advice. They’ll think that he should not wear black and white and tell him so and then hope that perhaps he does not listen.

What the Rabbi will not do (if the truth is his concern) is give a simple answer, or say the question entirely does not matter. He cannot give a simple answer to the question any more than he can catch God in his pocket and save Him for a rainy day. He can only give an answer that is not an answer, the hunger-inducing bread of heaven, and play the person between the poles, and hope they reach enlightenment.

The seemingly simple question of whether Nesanel should start growing out his beard does not have a simple answer.

The answer is what G-d desires, which is what the G-dly soul desires, which we come to desire by leaving behind the dumb preconceptions of the rational animal.

The answer is the process of answering the question.

The answer is the truth of our own selves we come to through showing our work on both sides of the question.

The answer is that you cannot make something as real as a Jew with an answer.

The answer is that we must live and try it and see if it fits.

The answer is to be true to ourselves and true to the Truth, and figure out how to make them fit.

The answer is that God wants a beard, and wants Nesanel, and wants Nesanel’s beard.

The answer is to pray.

The answer is to tell the truth.

The answer is to play the game, to win, but with love.

Some people do not take kindly to games, however. They don’t understand that they are playing, or they understand something is afoot and it conflicts with their desire for authenticity. They don’t realize that questions about Judaism are aimed at an infinite ineffable faith-bond with God and get upset with difficult answers. They usually end up moving either toward the overwhelming extreme of the cult (which says it can communicate the Truth) or the pragmatic conquests of secularism (which pretends the Truth does not exist because it’s really good at accomplishing things while ignoring it).

They go off and meet some charismatic (or particularly uncharismatic) mentor who has all the answers and tells them there simply are no Jews who wear black and white or who don’t wear black and white. They meet FFBs who never really had to ask the question and take it for granted and say it has a simple answer, the same, for everyone, always, and that’s the end of the matter. They meet someone who never cared about G-d who mocks the game because he cannot eat it or mate with it. They sleep easier after telling themselves that all those agonizing games when they were younger were unnecessary complications from which they are finally free. They find simple answers you can read in a book, without realizing the books are written for orphans and what they need is a parent.

They might read in a book that Tiferes, beauty, is one of the middle sefiros, a synthesis of each side that somehow forms the middle. They might read that Tiferes is also the quality of truth, which like the middle beam stretches unchanged from the heights to the depths. They might read that Tiferes is the quality of Jacob, who is synonymous with Torah, which is synonymous with Truth — that beauty is truth, and truth beauty, and that it is specifically the middle path, where the contradictions should be greatest, that stretches up to God.

They read it all, and perhaps regret they weren’t wise enough to live it.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Night In Morristown

A story from yeshiva, based on true events.

They are singing though they hate to sing and listening though they question respect. Not all of them; the library welcomes all sorts tonight, the kind and the quiet, the studious and the odious, drawn forth from the dorm where they have been resting, chatting, drinking, drawn forth for the spectacle. Farbrengen!

No, they vary. But some of them, the only ones I really notice (their transgressions fill my ledgers) are as statues come to life and for no good reason. Most of the time they are cold rock, closed to the world, denying its qualities. “Rabbi so-and-so (whom I have never met) scrabbles for power in his distant city in the most amusing wormlike way.” “Singing means nothing.” “It’s all just externalities, that’s all it is!” Usually I smirk and bear it because I know (though I can’t yet put it to words) that by rejecting anything but their own high standards they are rejecting their own humanity and that one day I’ll grasp their inferiority, and if that’s not faith, I don’t know what is. So I don’t mind them so much.

But tonight, in the library, the chairs pressing all around, table set in plastic austerity and dotted with oily salads, the holy books of responsible students, and one warm bottle of Smirnoff, something inside me gives way and my contempt for them rises to my nostrils. Here they sit, acting as if they respect a man for more than his participation in the correct schedule, as if the music moves them even though it’s pointless, far beneath blood or purity.

The Rabbi says “L’chaim,” strokes his brown beard, tells a story. I’ve heard it before, and if I’ve heard it, so have they, a thousand times. I’m some confused can-kicker from Atlanta who fell into a shred of wisdom by accident; they were swaddled in it and fed by it; this story is to them their whole family back to Adam, an artifact torn from the Siberian snow, still frozen. The story means what their father said it means, what their grandfather said it means, what Moses (“My mother’s father’s ancestor, head shliach to the Sinai, a sweet guy but a real mamzer in politics”) said it means. We do not need to add our thoughts. We are here to participate in it and transmit it. But I do have my own thoughts.

I can’t help it; I’m trying to quit; I see an inherent parallel to a sicha I learned once, though it raises certain questions, and I make a mental note to learn that talk again though I have a bad habit of losing heart these days because most people don’t know enough to relate to my inferences and those who do turn back to stone when the clock strikes midnight and the farbrengen ends and the license for sincere self-expression is revoked.

I wonder whether I might obtain such a license one day, but saying you want one is the first step to never being taken seriously again and besides, I am not a descendant of the shliach to the Sinai. Whatever. We all know those licenses censor as much as they permit and there’s a reason these farbrengens mostly sound the same. So I leave.

It’s the beginning of Winter and the Jersey air greets me like a puppy and the bottom of the stairwell. It tells me it’s been wandering since I saw it last; while I was breathing garlic and body heat it had blown down from Canada, free of worry or regret, and is now on its way to the city. The stars glimmer in their eternal sublime silence, their agonizing beauty. They are content to inspire man, to be painted and rhapsodized in poetry, but they do not condescend to help us when our mouth tastes like onion and tomato and we look to the deer stalking across the dark baseball field with a strange, pagan envy.

I roll the sleeves of my white shirt down and sit on a bench. My yeshiva looms around me. It was once a monastery up on this wooded hill and it is not hard to imagine a student walking his luggage down the length of the parking lot, expelled, shaking his fist at the buildings’ soaring mass with a visigoth’s contempt, his heart brimming with the barbaric pride in never having erected a single pillar because all excellence is oppressive and civilization is a siege tower against the soul’s embankments. It smolders within me, the hint of this resentment; it warms my heart. I want to pull down the damned building and what it symbolizes brick by brick until my arrogant detractors tumble into the field with me and I will show them just how human they are –

Somewhere nearby, water hits the bricks of the courtyard with the velocity granted by a long fall. It sounds almost like the splashes you sometimes hear mid morning when the bochrim on the third floor, late for class and too lazy to find a sink, empty their bedside basins out a window with a charm that may or may not violate the Code of Jewish Law. But this is a more continuous pouring, more focused, almost as if – there! A body stands silhouetted in a high window, hands holding onto its inner edge as he urinates with aplomb into empty space. Behind him, I can hear laughter and singing. I make the calculation. The window belongs to a classroom near the study hall. My curiosity is piqued.

I roll up my sleeves, give the night a last, longing look (the deer are long-gone) and walk inside.

There are different degrees to which Judaism demands we violate the space between us. I have worked through long witching hours at the Western Wall, alone in a vast plaza; I have been there are the bustling pilgrimage festivals. I have felt the pressure, the smothering heat before the gravestone at Meron. But none of these are quite the same as the Farbrengen With Limited Room. One cannot compare the standing/stumbling of crowded prayer to this seated insularity, food and drink passed and spilled hand-to-hand, the table supporting the inside of it and the tension of love or mere attention crackling in the ether. The classroom excretes cigarette smoke through the still-open window and I breathe others’ hot vodka-tainted breath.

The one who peed upon the world has already retaken his seat to keep his mysteries forever. He could be anyone present, for arrayed before me is a proper thieves’ farbrengen, the scoundrels’ council of the Yeshiva. In the thick of it sit the clean-shaven chain smokers, the lower-grade scalawags who spend half the week begging for Shabbos leave and the other half resenting the declination, the wilder Frenchmen, the ideological philosopher dissidents, the cross-bearing floaters too delinquent to succeed at anything except keeping their parents blissfully ignorant.

They’re not mine, these wilds. I’m sure, as I stand in the doorway, that thinking they might see me as some sort of rat is making them see me as some sort of rat, but they are hardly paying attention. Berel is speaking and it’s his words that prevent me from closing the door and dashing off. “I want to be good,” he says.

It strikes at a flint deep inside and for just a moment I feel as if I shine. Here, the men are made of flesh. Here, none will ever own a license, barring some transformative experience that will allow them, in their middle-age, to say “In a past life.” Perhaps this chaos is mine. Perhaps it is the true order.

“Just do one thing,” Arraleh suggests. “Don’t go too fast.” Berel nods heavily; they are equally in their cups.

I don’t sit because I have never smoked and I still want to be excellent, maybe. I’ve spent too much time thinking to take these late words on their faces, and I wish to get up on the table and ask – if you want to so badly, then why don’t you? Are you an honest thief doing wrong and respecting right or are you crying over your vodka to stay the same because the wages of crime are so great?

I take my own bribes, but I take them in private. I can’t give up being true for being good. The world is too big to be merely a cancer on my self-justification; the stars are not my friends; the path from rebellion down to nothingness is well-worn and turns love to loathing…

I, of the first person, am not unforgiving stone, not an angel, not an animal.

In the morning, the classroom will be a desolation of stale smells and damaged property, and the library will bear the dutiful repeating of the Rabbi’s words.

I choose my bed.

The stars watch on as I carry my sore head up three flights to my waiting Wal-Mart sheets. My roommate the saint sits under his bedside lamp, studying as always. He will go on to greatness, we all know.

As for me, the month of Kislev is coming, and the snow. As I fall asleep, I remember a promise from years ago that somewhere here in yeshiva the living G-d bides his time, a new coat in his hand, waiting to bring me in from the cold.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Rough Night For Akiva

This story takes place at the same Yeshiva as A Lesson For John On King George St. and Kalman’s Heart.

 

Akiva kicks the side of the dumpster for the third time and hurts his foot. He swears and staggers down the road. He is pretty drunk, and the weight of his full backpack adds dangerous momentum to his sway. A few people wander around, Jerusalem Chassidim in big fur hats and gold overcoats, hands in their belt-sashes cupping bellies swollen with Shabbos dinner, members of a nice little fraternity, like the one Akiva just left.

He came from Florida with standard expectations; his parents thought he’d benefit from time in a “real Yeshiva” in the holy land, and his brother Motti’s stories of adventure in the golden city stoked his interest. “You’ll make us proud,” his father had said, and Akiva had wanted nothing more. He flew to Israel with khaki shorts on his legs and excitement in his heart.

His first day in Yeshiva, he got in a “situation” (as his father would call it) with another student over the stupidest thing – he unknowingly sat in some else’s seat in the Beit Midrash. He arrived at the beginning of his first morning seder, found a spot, and was already deep into the first mishna of his masechta when twenty minutes later a kid his age with matted blonde hair and lightly acned cheeks approached the opposite side of the table and stood there, silent, staring at him. Akiva stopped learning, unsure what he did wrong, and just stared at the words of his sefer, which had reverted back into ink.

“I’m Yitzchak,” said Blondie nasally, and extended his hand.

“Akiva,” said Akiva. He pumped the hand once, then let go, only to find Yitzchak was a double-pumper and who still grasped Akiva’s now-limp hand and shook it like a halachically invalidated palm frond (due to the limpness, and the spread. Akiva would try to tell this joke to others later. No one would get it). The Miamian remedied the situation by resuming his own squeezing and shaking, whereupon, for the third pump, Yitzchak released his sweaty grip Akiva was left holding the shake. He let go and the cycle of violence finally broke, Yitzi’s hand dropping to his side as if he were the subject of a street hypnosis demonstration. Yitzchak smiled and nodded in agreement with nothing.

“So, you’re new here,” said Yitzchak, shooting the schnitzel.

“Yep,” said Akiva.

“Has someone given you a tour of the Beit Midrash, uh, the study hall yet?”

“No,” said Akiva.

“So,” he said, and smiled conspiratorially while wagging a Talmudic finger. “Would you like a tour of the study hall?”

“Alright,” said Akiva, and closed his gemara.

As the less new and more comfortable students filtered into the hall at more comfortable times, Yitzchak catalogued the shelves that lined the cavernous room, effusive in his appraisal of this set of Shas or that set of Ritva. Akiva trailed behind his new tour guide and wondered how many of these books he’d open in his time in Yeshiva and how many students would be so friendly as Yitzchak. They finished in a quiet corner far from the air conditioner, where heat leaked through a cracked window and the ceiling fan sliced an irregular wobbling ellipse that threatened to hurl its blades across the room at any moment. Yitzchak gestured to a bookcase.

“These gemaras don’t get used much,” he said. “So,” –with a Talmudic intonation and the return of the finger– “if you take one of these for yourself I doubt it’d be a problem with anyone. Why don’t you check them out?”

Akiva had already found three promising volumes when he realized he was alone. He turned and saw Yitzchak sit where he’d been sitting, a chevrusa waiting for him.

“Am I really the new kid?” he thought as he pulled out a wobbly seat at the quiet table and sat in it. He opened his new dusty sefer and was through the Mishna and half as much again when he heard the stray cat standing on the windowsill outside scratching on the pane, as if it longed for the warmth of the study hall.

The thought of that first day drags Akiva all the way up the steep hill outside Yeshiva, every stride a rebellion, until heaving for breath he leaned against a lamppost and took a break. Some charedi stares at him and he stares back directly, thoughts full of violence, until the man shuffles off. Imagine if I’d looked at Yitzchak like that, he thinks. It brings a wry grin to his face. No, he never could have done it. Not then.

Akiva wasn’t long in exile corner before he discovered the Yeshiva’s courtyard, shady and peaceful, chairs and shtenders and an assortment of greenery surrounded on three sides by tall walls of Jerusalem stone and on the fourth with a gated fence that bordered an alley that ran alongside Yeshiva.

It was to here that he’d bring a small plastic bowl full of cold milk from breakfast each morning. He placed it on the ground next to his feet, pulled his favorite lectern close, and sang words of G-dly wisdom into the silence. It was a benevolent silence in that small space; it didn’t mind if he stumbled on the unfamiliar words, and didn’t wonder at the small orange and grey cat that squeezed through a hole in the fence links and minced over to the bowl on the cobblestones. When she had licked it clean she leaped onto his knees and he continued his learning stroking her head. After an hour and a half, almost always just the two of them, she would jump off and he’d head off to class with a “see you later.”

He didn’t name her even as the months passed and his aptitude with the holy books grew. Mistakes in translation receded into memory, and the thrill of Rashi and the drama of Tosfos opened before him. A scrabbly black beard began to grow on his red cheeks. The Rabbis called on him in class more often, and he’d quietly offer his thoughts on their sugya. Though he had no friends among his peers in Yeshiva, he desired none, and was happy.

One day, he shared too much. They were going around the Shabbos table talking about dreams with Rabbi Morgenthal and Akiva spoke the truth, which was that he mostly dreamed about girls. In the ensuing confusion, misunderstanding built upon misunderstanding until the entire roomful of teenagers was in an uproar, and the Rabbi, white-faced, suggested Akiva go for a walk around the block. He did, after he took out the whiskey flask he kept in a ceiling tile in his room and sank into its burning depths. The way they looked at me! What they think I am!

I didn’t mean it like that, he thought as he trudged up the hill that day. It was all a big misunderstanding. When he’d flop onto his terrible Israeli mattress, parents and friends a continent away, he’d drift away into flip-flops and shorts and a holding hand on the Miami boardwalk, families laughing all around, spray on the breeze. He mulled whether he was evil. He decided he didn’t know enough to even know what was wrong. He would trust the Rabbi’s judgment. He would attack his learning with renewed vigor until the words overflowed his conscious mind and purified his dreams.

His fists ball as he lurches down what he, to himself, always called the High Road. It rings the ridge above the yeshiva, about a half-hour walk around, only a small wooded park closer to the stars. The lights of Jerusalem unfold around him in their thousands, guarded. The sight normally breaks his mind open in the most pleasant way. Now it fills him with anguish. He has a claim against every light. “Where were you when I needed you?” he wants to ask. He knows that if he approached each one he’d find humble streetlights and apartment ceiling lights and even spotlights on some nice building’s façade, and they would sit mutely, radiating as is their nature, and not feel the need to answer his questions because they’re just bulbs for goodness’ sake and what does he expect of them? But this thought merely incriminates them further to his thrashing mind: “How dare you be so beautiful and inspire such awe and be no more than a scrap of metal that cannot protect me? What atrocities have the stars witnessed and said nothing?”

He wipes his eyes with the back of his fist and carries on.

He heard them talking about him three weeks ago as he sat on the toilet. Normally he wouldn’t notice, but the words “milk” and “cat” caught his attention.

“-he’s a little odd, but he doesn’t mean any harm,” said a voice. It sounded older, maybe one of the Yeshiva Rabbis. Akiva couldn’t tell.

“But he barely speaks to anyone. He spends more time with the cats then with the bochrim,” said a different voice. “They steal food from the kitchen.”

“So do the bochrim,” said the first voice, and they both laughed.

Cats, thought Akiva. Strange.

“Part of why he’s here is to learn how to be a mensch,” insisted a third voice.

“There are many quiet people,” the older voice reflected.

“Yeah, they’re the ones that go shooting up schools-”

“G-d forbid!”

“Come on, he’s not a normal person.”

“Maybe he’s exceptional. Maybe he’s special and just hides himself from most people.”

“Why would he hide?”

“He’s hiding so someone smart, someone who’s worth it, will look for him.”

Their back-and-forth continued, but Akiva no longer listened. Happy or sad he wasn’t sure, but he used all of his strength not to make a sound.

Over the High Road and up the mountain. It’s hard to find his way in the dark, but he recognizes the tree easily enough, a tall cypress nearly at the peak. He scrabbles on a patch of bare rock and then he is on damp grass and the going is easy. Too soon, he is at the tree. He sits on the grass and wetness seeps through to his skin. He reaches out his hand and touches the freshly-turned dirt at the tree’s base.

“A chevrusa?” said Akiva that morning, dubious. He’d been learning for months without one and made impressive progress on all fronts, according to his Maggid Shiur. Yet here in his courtyard was an older student he barely knew. A shtender and chair had been dragged around next to his own.

“That’s the way it’s done,” said the stranger. “What’s your name?”

He’s friendly, thought Akiva. With a sigh, he said, “Akiva.”

“I’m Shmulik.”

Akiva still held his gemara in the crook of his arm and a bowl of milk in his hands. He said, “Go ahead and sit, please,” as he bent to place it on the ground. As he straightened he looked to the fence for her and saw that someone had finally repaired the hole in the fence.

He was struck by the odd convergence of new realities in his little space. He turned to Shmulik. “Do you know anything about them working on this fence?” he asked.

Shmulik, engrossed in the Aramaic words before his eyes, shook his head absently.

Akiva crossed the gap to where her hole used to be with two strides and knelt down to examine the spot. It was good work; nothing remained of her entrance. How did they even know about it? he thought, as he scanned the alley for her. “Cat?” he called out. He looked back at Shmulik, whose eyes shot back to his sefer.

“There you are,” he said as she detached from the shadows on the other side of the alley and approached. He knew from her eyes that something had changed, beyond simple fence repair. He reached his fingers through the links to pet her head and she hissed and retreated, looking at the fence post a few feet to his right. His brow furrowed. Another glance at Shmulik; another aversion of his eyes.

At the base of the fencepost he found a small plastic box with a tiny red eye that lit up when he moved the fence. Its precise nature evaded his understanding at that moment, but he knew it scared his cat, and he knew it wasn’t there by accident.

“I need a rock or something,” Akiva announced to his new chevrusa.

“What are you talking about?”

“A rock,” he repeated. He examined his shtender, noting its iron feet with approval. He wasn’t sure if he could move it fast enough. Might be worth a try. He grabbed it by its legs and suddenly Shmulik existed, the older student’s hands on his arms.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Akiva hesitated. He thought of his father and of Rashi and Tosfos, and then shoved Shmulik hard enough to knock his chair backward to the ground. As the older student spilled to the cobblestones Akiva grabbed his shtender and lifted it above his head. He turned to the fence and saw her, staring at him, eyes slotted emeralds, waiting for him to break the dreaded device.

Then – a startled cry (Shmulik’s, or his own, he can’t remember), the blaring of an electric horn, a yowl, silence.

Akiva’s face is wet as he unzips his pack and grabs his bottle, three quarters empty. He brings his knees to his chin, clasps his hands around them, and looks out on the Judean hills. In their rollings they form the glittering edge of a pooled night sky, and a moon the color of butter floats above it all. He contemplates the edge, and the lights of man far below, imitations.

He sits and thinks for a long time in the silence, images of other lives flitting before his eyes, tempted to run into the halogen distance and throw himself upon the world’s mercy. He wonders whether he could be a dockworker in Rotterdam or a street vendor in Shanghai, if he could win his life by the hardness of his knuckles, the strength of his arm, or whether he could trap profits with his wits and drive sports cars sleek in the night.

Eventually, the wind dries his face, and he lifts his eyes upward and wonders if it is his decision.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why Did No One Defend Yeshiva?

I recently wrote a post on Hevria that caused a bit of a stir. The point of the piece was to, in a more-clever-than-wise way, point out that both yeshiva and college fall short in terms of providing a true education to their students, and for very similar reasons.

As soon as the essay went online, I started getting responses. A lot of them were positive. A lot of them weren’t.

Now, it’s rarely fun and almost never productive to argue with people on the Internet. The notion that anyone is going to change their mind about anything from an Internet argument is laughable (even the people who say they’re open-minded are not going to change their minds on any substantial issue from a comments section debate). Nevertheless, I feel these rather stupid impulses that I imagine others might find familiar…a certain need to have the last word; a need to prove myself, even to strangers; a need to defend what I’ve said, as if my reputation or something else important is on the line.

So I began to engage with the critical comments. And when I did, I began to realize that the point of my article had been grossly misunderstood. Most of the “negative” comments were people who felt I was saying people shouldn’t attend college, an idea that obviously aroused some emotion in some of my readers.

But then, as the flow of comments dwindled over the next few days, the plot thickened. Though many did not like my criticisms of college, and told me so, not a single person seemed upset about or defended yeshiva from my criticism.

Which leads me to the question: Why?

As far as I see it, there are a few possibilities:

  1. My readership does not include people who could defend the yeshiva, but does contain those who could defend college.
  2. People who would defend yeshiva do not for some reason feel the need or desire to comment (or private message me).
  3. My comments on yeshiva were not interpreted as an attack or criticism at all, whereas my comments on college were.
  4. I struck a nerve with those who would defend College, whereas my Yeshiva comments were so off-the-mark so as to elicit no response. That is, my criticism of Yeshiva was inaccurate, but my words against college were too accurate.
  5. Yeshiva is actually indefensible (that is, everyone thinks the yeshivas really are terrible), whereas college is better than I make it out to be. That is, my criticisms of Yeshiva were accurate, but those of college were inaccurate.

Let’s go through one by one.

  1. It is simply not true that my readership includes no people who could defend Yeshiva. I know that this essay was discussed at Shabbos tables in religious neighborhoods; I have friends who love yeshiva specifically and religious institutions in general who merely told me they enjoyed the piece. I also had several comments from individuals who went both to yeshiva and to college who had no problem criticizing college of both. None of these defend yeshiva, even though they could have.
  2. Even if for some reason there is pressure to not defend yeshiva on Hevria (and I don’t think there is), I received no private messages defending places of jewish learning. This, despite dozens (at least) of generally outspoken, unafraid yeshiva graduates who know me personally and would definitely not be afraid to share the opinion on the matter. I find it hard to believe that if there was a perceived attack on yeshiva, no one would say anything. Even if they all followed the general rule that argument achieves nothing (and they don’t), they might have tried to paint a more complete picture of yeshiva in their comments, just as many did with college. So perhaps it was not seen as an attack…
  3. — but that makes no sense either. I used literally the exact same words to criticize college and yeshiva, almost like a copy-and-paste job. Granted, previous events among the readers may have made them predisposed to defend college. That is, it’s not that they didn’t see yeshiva as under the gun, but rather that they were particularly sensitive about college because college students are ostracized, spoken badly of, etc. in the religious community. This explanation makes sense to me. However, I think it’s incomplete. After all, where are all these people who look down on college when it is compared directly to their own educational institutions? If there really is this much religious oppression, or cognitive dissonance over college, etc., I would think that comparing yeshiva to that secular institution would elicit some sort of outcry. But no such reaction was forthcoming. Again, I received not a single defense of Yeshiva from an entire religious community.
  4. Everyone who at all bothered to comment on the “yeshiva” half of my post had the same thing to say: That my criticism was spot-on.  Thus, even if my criticism of college was accurate, it seems to have been at least as accurate when it comes to yeshiva, and it was widely acknowledged at such.
  5. Of these five possibilities, I find this the most compelling — but again, this simply isn’t enough. True, the yeshiva system is widely acknowledged to have flaws, whereas flaws with college as a whole are much less widely accepted. But I had commenters who acknowledged the flaws of college, yet still pointed out that the benefits outweigh the costs. For yeshiva, there was no such defense. No one had anything to say about how wonderful it was that there was a place where one could be steeped in Judaism and its traditions 24/7, or focus worry-free on the word of G-d, or even merely exist separate from the world and yet somehow above it. These benefits are obvious to me. (After all, I was never saying people shouldn’t go to yeshiva.) Yet no one felt the need to mention them, to force me to qualify my criticisms…

And so, back to the original question. Why did no one defend yeshiva?

I’m not sure. But here’s a whimsical theory.

No one defended yeshiva because there is now a clear understanding in the religious world that any organization, institution, or individual merely participates in  or reflect what is Good or True, but is never itself completely good or true. In the secular world, however, there is now no concept of participation in an abstract perfection; there is only the thing itself, flawed until perfected.

In other words, since there is no particular vision of what college is, at essence, all of its failings are major detractions; after all, the next criticism might demolish the whole thing altogether. We must explain, against every criticism, why it is still a worthwhile institution. Meanwhile, since the Yeshiva at heart has an essential identity fully integrated into the Jewish framework, focusing around Torah study and all its implications, no number of incidental failures can undermine its worth.

People don’t feel the need to defend yeshiva because yeshiva is Torah study and Torah study is not going anywhere. Sure, there is plenty of room for improvement, and this is widely (if not universally) acknowledged. But a criticism of the institution is not an existential threat to it; we can work to fix the yeshiva, but the yeshiva will always exist, as long as Jews do Jewish things. The Jewish society has a need for intensive Torah study, and that need will always draw the yeshiva into existence like a wick drawing oil to the flame. So when I say that yeshiva sure is expensive, a hundred readers smiled and nodded and went back to their business, because though the cost may irk them, it is merely a practical issue that prevents us from fulfilling our need for yeshiva more pleasantly and efficiently.

College, on the other hand, is not perceived in terms of the need it fulfills per se. Especially in its current form, it is very hard for anyone to say what exactly college is for. And if you can’t point at the need or purpose that is its sustaining core, any attack could be an existential threat. When I say college debt is ridiculous, there is some chance I might be encouraging people to avoid college or even, G-d forbid, to demolish it. This is possible because not many people really think of college in terms of what it’s for, why it’s necessary, or ultimately (as follows directly from those ways of thinking) what it is. And so, it must be defended.

All of which is kind of meta, since my underlying reason for criticizing both yeshiva and college is that neither of them teach us enough to think this way, to see the underlying structure of the world around us and engage it in a way that fulfills the potential of the human intellect and allows us to be noble, dignified, elevated beings.

There is no doubt that in terms of purpose and essence, the religious perspective has serious advantages in these intellectually muddled times. The very idea that there is a G-d teaches us to think in those terms. But I do not think that there is no secular way to think in them. On the contrary, with advances in science we now live in a world much more open to thinking in terms of design, purpose, meaning, form, and essence.

That, whimsically, is my explanation.

Kalman’s Heart

A sequel to “A Lesson for John on King George Street.” The most brilliant student in the Yeshiva considers leaving. But parting is never simple, especially after sacrifice…


The three of them walk to the yeshiva in the rain. “Will I ever look upon your fair face again, my lady?” John asks his girl. They walked without raincoats, holding hands. Despite her soaked socks, she giggles. “Give me something to remember you by,” he says. She raises her eyebrows. She is quite beautiful. Kalman goes inside.

Into the Beis Medrash, his domain. No matter how cold the world outside gets, it is always warm here. In the day, voices ring out in battle. It is night now, and instead a sleepy peace reigns. It is always so in the world of ideas. Here, even the worst fights never cause him to doubt his life, never bring him to question his choices, never leave him drying under his covers, face buried in his pillow, questions following him to yawning oblivion.

Never.

 

He grabs a cup of coffee and sits down to his Talmud, thoughts of flowing water and brushing fingers washed away like dust.

Too soon, he is interrupted by Rabbi Marmelstein sitting down across from him, bright gaze and short brown beard drawing his eyes from the page.

“Kalman, you’re what, twenty-two?”

“That’s right, Rabbi.”

Sigh. “I think it’s time for you to move on.”

Kyle, you’re twenty-two. Your whole life is in front of you. We’ve sacrificed so much for you. Please.

“Move on, Rabbi?”

“There’s an excellent place, a Yeshiva for gifted students like you.”

Just stay. Your father and I will help you find the right college. You can keep studying in your own time. We’ll find you Kosher food.

“I’m happy here.”

“You’re stuck. No one here can learn like you can. And between the two of us, our students don’t have the same priorities as you.”

Half the boys in your program are idiots. You said so yourself. Do you really want to be one of them?

“They’re my friends.”

“I’m worried that they’re holding you back. At this new place, if you work hard, you could become something great.”

You can’t tell your mother “they may be idiots but they’re my idiots” when she’s worried about you starving in the gutter.

“I’m not sure I want to be great.”

“There’s something else. We spoke to them about you, and they’re considering a full scholarship.”

You’re going to have the best life imaginable.

He takes off his glasses and says he’ll think about it.

 

He sits cross-legged on his bed, listening to G-d’s blessings pour through the gutters, banging his head back against the wall to the beat of What do I want? What do I want? What do I want?

He remembers the last days of December, Junior year of high school, at the ski cabin, drinking sweet cocoa on the couch with Hannah, muscles aching after a long day of chasing her down the mountain. He was always chasing her. What do I want? She’d gotten whipped cream on her nose, and he offered her the corner of the tablecloth with one of his wry smiles, and she laughed and laughed, a laugh soft like the evening snowfall. What do I want? 

I can have it again. Call mom, fly home, be happy.

He tries to remember why he shouldn’t, and all he hears is the sound of the rain.

 

“Don’t do it,” John says, and burps.

“Why?”

“Who’s gonna help me if I need a word translated?”

Mordechai slaps John on the back of the head, and the kid puts his head in his arms on the table’s edge and chuckles at the floor.

Yosef, who has been Kalman’s shadow for two years, says, “It’s free, and it’s a better Yeshiva. You should do it.”

“They have more guys who learn. That doesn’t mean it’s better.

“It’s free. Your parents won’t be paying anymore. You won’t be under their thumb. They won’t feel like they’re wasting money.”

“Damn,” says Shraga. “He’s right.”

“All my problems solved, just like that,” says Kalman with a wry smile, and drains his cup.

“It’s the next step,” rumbles Mordechai, their gigantic Russian sage. “Always forward, never back.”

“What about sideways?” says Kalman. “You guys aren’t helping.”

“Exactly,” says John, sneer muffled by his arms. “Go make some friends who can help.”

Kalman gets up, pays his part of the bill, and leaves.

 

“Why the hell are we friends?” slurs John, his hand on Kalman’s book, blocking his view. John shakes his head and droplets of rainwater fall on the page. Kalman winces. “We don’t have anything in common. Yosef is holy, Mordechai’s wise, Shraga’s nice. What do I have that the best bocher in Yeshiva wants to be friends with me?” His voice trembles. Kalman winces again.

“You should lie down.”

John said what he thought of that.

“You should scour your mouth out, then lie down.”

“Answer the question, dammit.” The elfin rabble-rouser throws his arms around Kalman’s neck and pulls the struggling scholar close, until their foreheads touch. “I love you, Kal.”

Kalman rolls his eyes. “You’re drunk.” A cloud of alcohol fumes escapes when John opens his mouth to object, Kalman cuts him off. “We’re friends because we’re meant to be friends. It just makes sense. Kalman and John, John and Kalman. Can you explain Yosef and me any better? Can you explain peanut butter and jelly?”

John snickers. “I’m sorry, that’s just so romantic.”

“Ugh.” He shoves the kid away.

 

He’s out alone on the slick sidewalks trying to get it all organized in his head. The rain drumming against his poncho acts as a floor for his thoughts; his mind is unreachable in company and shy in silence but with the patter in his ears and the sheet of water enshrouding his body the ideas whirl unbidden. They are, to his dismay, disjointed, chaotic.

There is no problem in the world, he reckons, that can’t be divided into smaller parts and tackled piece by piece. But it takes wisdom to balance the parts, to glean the crucial from the superficial. It takes a higher, objective perspective. And Kalman can’t find it. There is something harassing him, a pattern in the leaves. Something he’s missing.

He reaches his favorite bookstore and steps inside. As he removes his plastic raincoat, a father and young son approach the counter. The boy clutches a slender red Chumash to his chest, and his father counts out coins like precious gems in his palm. They have holes in their beaten shoes, and Kalman realizes it might be collected charity they’re trading away for the book. It could be the boy’s first. Maybe he needs it for cheder, needs it more than shoes on a rainy day. The man hands over the coinage with one hand and caresses his son’s shoulder with the other.

And with no great drama, it clicks. They found love in this place, he thinks. If she’s here, I’m going to find her, too. 

Kalman pushes his glasses towards his eyes. It is time to chase once more. He can feel it. And since he is a scholar, he will start with holy books. He walks to the back corner of the store, dustier than the rest, and runs his fingers along new spines.

 

“I’ve decided to stay,” he tells Rabbi Marmelstein.

The man raises his eyebrows in surprise. “Are you sure?”

“No,” says Kalman freely. “But, Rabbi, there’s something you could do to add to my certainty.”

“Anything.”

Kalman pulls the shopping bag onto his lap and holds it open, revealing its contents. The Rabbi shares a wistful grin. “Well, if that’s how it’s going to be,” he says, “let’s get to work.”

To be continued…

 

Image from Flickr.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.