Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Dance Dance Revolution

I went dancing the other night!

Over the past couple of years, I've had some measure of success in overcoming a lot of the psychological and sociological remnants of my previous life, including many of those related to male/female interactions, but being able to freely dance in a mixed crowd was something I hadn't been able to muster up the courage to do. The one time I did do it, I was very uncomfortable with myself the entire time, and have avoided it ever since. There's a variety of issues playing out in my head that's holding me back, but for some time I've been making efforts to overcome them, and so last week when I found myself near an establishment that hosts a bi-weekly dance night, I decided to step in and see what it was like. I had heard about it from a number of friends who had encouraged me to try it out, and knew it wasn't anything I'd find objectionable (no bump-and-grind, inappropriate provocative stuff, etc.), but I still had been pushing it off for a while. Now that I was right there, I figured I'd just step in briefly, take a look around, feel the atmosphere, enjoy a little music, and leave. But as I was sitting there on the side, watching everyone just let themselves go so freely, I decided that I had to at least try it a little bit. So I did, feeling awkward and uncomfortable, sure that everyone was watching me make a fool of myself. Maybe they were, maybe not, I don't know, but after a while, I felt myself gradually escaping the constricting limitations of my mind that were preventing me from enjoying myself. I don't really know how to dance, and I probably looked kind of silly to anyone that really cared to notice, but everyone there was just so free about it all, moving in any which way they pleased, that I found myself getting caught up in it all, just letting my body express what the music was doing to my heart.

So I danced and danced and danced. For three hours. It felt good. And it felt good to finally be able to be there, past that point that was holding me back.

Most of the crowd was fairly young, mid to late 20's, and there was a fair number of kipa's (which I realized later might not accurately reflect the actual demographic, as I eventually stuffed mine in my pocket after it kept flying off), but there was one girl there that was distinctly different from the rest of the group. She was dressed in a way that suggested she was probably quite a bit more religious than the rest of the crowd (or rather, that she typically associated with a more religious society), both by the style she wore and the fact that she had a long skirt and sleeves that extended past her elbows. She didn't seem to be there with anyone. But most noticeable was the fact that as she moved, her demeanor was not like the rest of the dancers. She was stiff, not as uninhibited as the regulars, and somewhat self-conscious, glancing around at the others around her every so often. I had never seen this girl before in my life, and had very little to base it on, but I was willing to bet anything that what was going in that girl's head was an exact reflection of what was occurring that very same moment in mine. I so wanted to go over to her and just tell her, "I know exactly how you feel. So let's dance together!" I didn't do that, figuring it probably would have done way more harm than good. Thankfully, just like I managed to do, she eventually seemed to loosen up and let herself go appropriately. I couldn't help wondering how the night's experience affected her, and if it was as significant a breakthrough for her as it was for me.

There was one other amazing thing that happened that night. At one point in the dancing, I noticed a guy in a wheelchair wheel himself into the room, and as he got closer I was able to see that he was missing both his legs. Such a thing is a heartbreaking sight to see, and I felt it stir in me that rare emotion of appreciation people sometimes feel for the good health they may be fortunate to have. But he seemed to know a number of people there, and was in good spirits, so it wasn't putting too much of a damper on my mood. The guy then rolled his wheelchair to the periphery of the dance area, and all of a sudden just started swinging his arms and head around in every direction, wildly, uncontrollably! And for a second I thought to myself, "What the hell is wrong with that guy?", until a moment later, it dawned on me: He was dancing! This was the only way he could do it; to let himself go like we were able to; to let himself just be carried away by the music. It was such a moving sight that I had to stop and just let myself take it in for a few minutes. As I watched him flail about with complete and total utter abandon, I felt tears welling up in my eyes. The guy had no legs, and he was dancing his heart out. Unbelievable.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

On Dealing With the Problem of non-Learners

My previous post generated a number of comments where people chimed in on their views about learning gemara and how yeshivas fail so miserably in that department. But the point of the rant wasn't to get on a soapbox and tell everyone why I think yeshivas suck. I can do that, and one day I probably will, but for now, it was just meant to be about why I didn't like shavuos. Plain and simple. (And actually it was meant to lead into how I had a nice chag this year, but for now it seems that discussion will have to wait.)

One of the commenters who claimed to be a long-time rebbe in a yeshiva wrote about how troubled he was by what I wrote and said he was interested in discussing the matter further. Well, I hate to disappoint him, but I'm not. Maybe ten, fifteen years ago when I was suffering through all that, I could have cared to discuss it with someone who supposedly wanted to improve the situation. Maybe five years ago when I still cared a bit about getting the respect of that society. But now I'm so past it (the post was entitled "Shavuos In My Past"), that I have very little inclination to get into a debate about the matter. And I'm especially not interested in anyone talking to me because they feel they can "help me" in this regard. Although I still see the issues as problems in a society, the afflicted society is no longer one I care to be a part of, and one which I have thankfully managed to extricate myself from (for the most part).

But he does claim to be concerned about the issue. I'm sure there are many more people like him who are supposedly concerned about young people in situations like I described. So, I figured I'd share a few thoughts that were triggered by his comments:

> although much of what you say is true and right on the mark, it is quite easy to point blame, and lash out at every Yeshiva and the entire Yeshiva world

I don't think I spoke about all yeshivas. Or even the whole yeshiva world. I only mentioned my own individual experience. You want to extrapolate, be my guest. And yes, it is quite easy to place blame. The blame falls squarely on those charged with my education. Who would you blame?

> though there are hundreds and hundreds of outstanding, sincere, dedicated and intelligent mechanchim who are also trying their best.

I'm not surprised you think so. Isn't that what everyone who supports the system believes? Look, I never did a survey, so I don't claim that my ideas are 100% valid across the entire spectrum of yeshivish institutions. Everything I say is based on my own experiences and those of the many friends I had who were in similar situations. But explain to me, how it is possible for a person to go through his entire high school, through multiple yeshivas, endless chavrusos, countless tutors, and still not have a single person point out that he doesn't know alef bais? Maybe there are "hundreds of outstanding, sincere, dedicated and intelligent mechanchim", but are they competent? Are they qualified? You say they're out there, but I never came across them throughout my high school years. The truth is, I wonder on what basis you even make that claim. How many gemara rebbe's have degrees in education? How many mechanchim got into chinuch because they had no other options? How many schools have systems that hold their mechanchim accountable in any way for their success or failure with the students? I don't know the general answers to those questions, but in the yeshivas that I was in, I know that the blame for a failing student invariably fell on the students own shoulders.

Furthermore, even if your numbers are accurate ("hundreds of mechanchim"), but which I suspect are based more on a cursory survey of the landscape rather than a proper inquiry, what percentage of the overall mechanech population is that? Hundreds out of how many?

>It's not that we need to shut down the entire system...

Although the idea appeals to me greatly, I never suggested it.

> many Rebbeim are very aware of the problems with the educational, communal and social structure that you describe. I am personally close with a number of Gedolei Yisrael who are also very concerned.

Wow. I'm touched. You're all so wonderful. But I've been there before. When I was in yeshiva, my rabbeim weren't indifferent to my difficulties. They also expressed sympathy for my challenging situation. But they didn't deal with the problem properly! They just told me to try harder. To daven for hatzlacha. To get a tutor. To switch chavrusos. To take notes better. To pay more attention. Your (and the "gedolim's") concern means diddly to me. It's no different than the heartfelt concern my dedicated (yet misguided) rabbeim had for me those years ago. They professed concern, and I believe they really did feel bad, but they were so dedicated to the system, to the concept that "everyone can be a learner" (nay, everyone must be a learner!), that they kept me chained to my hardship rather than offer me the simple and self-evident remedy to my suffering: to tell me that I didn't have to be a learner!

> Unfortunately, the solutions are not very easy to achieve.

That doesn't absolve them of the situation one bit. The community as a whole is contributing to the problem, but the yeshivas and the rabbeim are probably the most culpable offenders for the screwed up situation that the society finds itself in. Like a negligent surgeon who drinks before an operation and then botches the surgery, you claim, "Well, now it's a complicated situation! There's no easy fix!" It's your carelessness that caused the problem in the first place!

But you know something? You're not just the incompetent surgeon. You're also the inattentive hospital that repeatedly allows such a situation to occur. And you're the substandard medical school that has never does anything about the fact that so many of your graduates perform that way. (Ok, you do actually do something: You talk a lot about how "there's a problem", and how "the situation is complicated", and how "so many people are bothered by the problem". You organize lectures to hear "experts in the field" analyze the issue, and you make roundtables at your conventions to discuss it, and you write sycophantic articles about it in your periodicals, but you never actually address the core issue!!!)

You say that the solutions aren't easy to achieve. Why not? Of course they are! All that's needed is for the schools to stop pushing everyone to be learners! Everyone knows that this is all that needs to be done. However, it is true, that's not an easy thing to achieve. But you know why not? Because the yeshivas have already created a society where everyone thinks that's the only way to be a proper Jew! And they're still doing it! They're still pushing the view that the ideal Jew is the learner. The kollel guy. The rebbe. The rosh yeshiva. The mechaber sefer. Whatever. That a proper Jew is supposed to be learning 24/7. That nothing in life is worth doing except limud torah. That any person that tries to be anything else is throwing his life away. That any departure from being a learner has to be excused and justified and explained with a trillion and one rationalizations. You'll claim that such things aren't explicitly spelled out (they definitely are in some places), but even if not, the message comes through loud and clear and every good yeshiva kid knows that if he wants to do right in that world, to the learners he must go. Anything else is just a very distant second.

So please don't tell me that you and the gedolei yisroel and all the hundreds of dedicated mechanchim are really concerned about the problem. You created it. And you continue to foster it. It's preposterous that you can claim to be troubled by it, when you persist in promoting it incessantly! And until this underlying outlook is changed, the problem is never going to really go away.

Sorry if the tone is a bit angry. I don't deny that I'm upset. But it's not the past that bothers me. My past is behind me. It's the hypocritical pronouncements of people who claim to be concerned about a problem and who really are the very cause of that problem that upsets me so much. All they really care about is putting a band-aid on the symptoms, not truly addressing the fundamental issues.

Actually I think I should apologize to the commenter. I don't know him. It was his writing that led me to believe that he falls into the camp of those who I feel are responsible for these problems. But I don't really know anything about him to believe as such. If his manner of chinuch truly is devoid of those reprehensible ideas and approaches, I sincerely apologize.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Shavuos In My Past

As I've written before, I'm not such a big fan of the holidays. And despite my cynical grumblings about Pesach, except for maybe Simchas Torah, I consider Shavuos to be the worst offender of them all. It combines some of the most resented ideas and experiences of my past into one hearty cheesecake-and-torah-filled day.

The most obvious and basic thing that bothers me about Shavuos is that I'm supposed to stay up and learn. These days I'm not at all compelled to follow that minhag, but throughout my Yeshiva years and beyond it was mandatory to participate in that hallowed tradition. As beautiful and inspiring as that custom may sound to others, to me (and to the many kindred spirits who felt similarly) it was pure hell. Despite the public façade that I put on about it, I really couldn't stand learning. In my earlier years, I didn't have the courage to admit this to myself, preferring to pretend that I truly enjoyed it all, and that I just needed to try harder in order to reach that elusive stage where I'd succeed at it and enjoy the learning, but over the years I realized that the truth was that I was miserable at it, had no real interest in it whatsoever, and really would have preferred to never open a gemara again for the rest of my life. Despite this emerging awareness, and notwithstanding that it was plainly obvious to all that I sucked at this learning thing, I steadfastly kept up the proper image. To my peers and rabbeim I was as devoted and enthusiastic about "klerring chakiras" and finding pshat in tosfos as anyone. Well... that's probably a bit of an exaggeration. A more accurate assessment would be to say that it was pretty self-evident that most of the guys who weren't so good at learning weren't really as interested in it as the true lamdanim, and it was probably obvious to all that I fell into that category. But as we all knew, in order to maintain any self-respect in that society, one needed to preserve the image of being interested in learning, and as I was always ready and willing to compensate for my lack of true learning ability, I unfailingly made sure to always keep up at least a reasonable modicum of that superficial image.

Yet, beneath the surface, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with all the "learning" I was forced to endure: The pre-shiur preparation where I had to pretend that I was "making a leining" and had some idea what was going on. The mind-numbingly boring shiurim that I never understood a word of. The afternoon and night sedarim where I had to review the shiur and play the game of pretending to have an inkling of what had transpired in the classroom earlier that day. I got quite good at it actually. It takes some skill to ascertain when one is supposed to nod along with feigned comprehension, or when one is permitted to express some slight confusion about an issue, or when to inject the appropriate buzzword into the discussion, all while not really having a clue as to what the hell is truly going on.

Over the years, I managed to keep this all to myself, dutifully sitting through the long sedarim, showing up to the shiurim, and always making the requisite token effort when it was expected of me. Even during the yeshiva vacations, when yeshiva bochurim are allowed to be less involved in actively learning, I made sure to put in the obligatory daily one-hour seder that was expected of me, greatly appreciating the reduction in my societally-enforced enslavement. Despite the overabundance of divrei torah and davening that I was constantly subjected to during the yomim tovim, it was a welcome reprieve from the endless learning that I normally had to deal with in a typical day.

And even though over the years there was an increasing tendency to get us to earnestly devote ourselves to our learning even during our vacation periods - whether they may have been a regular shabbos weekend, a holiday break, or even a summer vacation - those periods were still generally permitted a certain laxness that wasn't tolerated during the normal yeshiva zman (semester). The Rabbis tried to get us to take it more seriously, but they still had to allow for the fact that it was actually a break, and as such we were allowed to get away with some amount of neglecting our studies.

But Shavuos was different. Shavuos was supposed to be all about learning! And not only was I being denied the chance of obtaining a brief recess from the never-ending learning, learning, learning, on top of that I was being told that I had to be more involved in it then ever! I didn't just have to sit through an extra long seder like on a typical shabbos afternoon where (due to the typically reduced faculty) I might even be able to get away with taking a nap and where even the most ardent lamdanim appreciated getting a few extra zzzz's, but I had to stay up all night, having to pretend more than ever to be interested in this obsession that I had no interest for whatsoever. Learning on Shavuos wasn't supposed to be like learning on any other day. It was supposed to be a whole different experience. We were supposed to be so excited about it, more eager than ever, anxious to surrender ourselves to our holy tomes, trying to recreate the experience of Matan Torah and rededicating ourselves to our precious learning.

So I faked it more than ever. I threw myself into the preparations just like all the others, scheduling chavrusos throughout the entire night, preparing myself for this momentous occasion, and getting myself so excited that I actually almost believed that this Shavuos I was at long last going to break through the barrier and finally become a proper learner.

But alas, it was not meant to be. Shavuos night learning usually turned into an almost exact replica of a typical learning seder for me. I probably began with a bit of a more enthusiastic start, but it wasn't long before my interest waned, the snack-filled tables beckoned, and I convinced my chavrusa that it was time for a quick break. And then I somehow had to figure out a way to keep my interest (and body) up for the next 3 hours.

While that explains the practical side of what annoys me about Shavuos, a much deeper and more disturbing reaction is rooted in the ideas of what Shavuos is all about. Or rather, how the yom tov was presented during those formative years in yeshiva. Because, like I said, we all knew that Shavuos was about "Matan Torah". And Matan Torah is about learning Torah. And learning Torah is what we, as "bnei torah", were all about! This was a holiday that was meant to be a celebration of everything that we stood for! The lead-up to the chag was continuously filled with shmuezen and shiurim about how this was the most important day for us. About how Shavuos determines our Torah growth for the coming year. About how we were about to rededicate ourselves to God's Holy Torah. About how this was an opportunity to "acquire our portion of Torah" for ourselves. About how this was a chance to finally celebrate what mattered most in the world - LEARNING TORAH!!! And as was usually the case in those days when I eagerly ate up all the seemingly brilliant nuggets of wisdom that my rabbeim fed me, I bought it all, hook, line, and sinker.

But inside my heart, beneath the thin veneer of my enthusiastic demeanor, there was a part of me that knew so well that all this excitement was insincere. I didn't truly feel joyful about learning Torah. I wasn't even good at it. My failure at learning Torah was the cause of so much of my misery; it was why I wasn't respected by my peers, it was an endless source of embarrassment and frustration, and it was the obstacle to so much of what I wanted in my life. And even though I still bought into the idea that I was supposed to do it (and love doing it), I knew that I couldn't stand it at all.

These heretical notions that I tried so valiantly to deny were always present inside of me, but the surrounding culture that I was living in at the time was very effective at getting me to stifle them and very successfully encouraged me to instead pursue the path expected of me by my society.

But despite their success at repressing my general dissatisfaction, there was something so disturbing to me about Shavuos that once I became aware of it, no amount of brainwashing would let me deny it: If Shavuos was all about a celebration of learning Torah, then Shavuos was essentially a celebration of the source of my misery. To deny and stifle my pain was one thing. But to profess gratitude and appreciation for this horrible burden that was the cause of that pain was something that my heart would just not let me accept. No matter how many shmuezen and shiurim I heard on it. This is what Shavuos was really about to me. Ever since I had this realization the mere thought of the holiday of Shavuos would put a scowl on my face.

This is why I can't stand Shavuos. Besides the annoying issue of being denied a rare break and having to continue my general fake Torah excitement, Shavuot brought with it the need to fake it even more, and to top it off with a phony celebration of something incredibly abhorrent to my inner self.

Truth be told, these sentiments expressed above were not fully formed through those years in yeshiva. In the earlier years there were stirrings of some of these feelings combined with a general undercurrent of dissatisfaction and frustration that I didn't know how to give proper expression to. Over time, they grew increasingly strident, becoming more recognizably resentful and bitter, but still probably not able to be given full expression until after I made a certain psychological break from that world.

And that's how I felt for the past few years. As Shavuos came along this year, I had no expectations that I would enjoy it at all. My rough plans for the day were to avoid most of the holiday stuff, trying to turn the day into a simple relaxing shabbat-like experience with no extra significance, and just get by it easily and simply. Turns out I was in for a surprise. Shavuot this year was actually very enjoyable and I had an amazingly wonderful holiday. But I'll save the details of that for my next post.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Baruch Hashem!

I took Gil's advice and listened to the two lectures that he links to here about the issue of Morality Among Orthodox Teens.

Overall I thought they both were really lacking in substance, and avoiding any real issues, but one remark was so incredulous that I can't resist highlighting it. At the 30:45 mark R' Mayer Twerski discusses how it's important that people make Hashem a more authentic and active part of their lives. I don't have any problem with that necessarily. But what's his suggestions to achieve this? To have people use "Im yirtzeh Hashem" (God willing) and "Baruch Hashem" (Thank God) more frequently in their conversation!

Is this guy serious?!

I know that everyone in that world is so afraid to look beneath the thin veneer of their frumkeit lifestyle and see how lacking they are in any qualitative meaningful spirituality, but to actually encourage further shallowness as a solution to the problem just boggles the mind!

The problems of kids not taking the religious side of their lives seriously is directly related to the fact that all around them they see so much superficial religiosity in so many aspects of their lives. There's probably very few places in the world that have as much frum "culture" as the locales where these lectures where being given. I have no doubt that these families don't just say "im yirtzeh Hashem" all the time (and of course where it makes absolutely no sense to say it) but that they also do every other conceivable external frumkeit indicator that their society has thought up. They and their neighboring environs have frum markets, frum entertainment, frum radio stations, frum newspapers, frum politicians, frum social scenes, frum fashion outlets, frum everything!* They've taken something that's supposed to be deep and meaningful and turned into a easily packaged consumer commodity. For one to be respected in the frummest circles today, it's a simple matter. Just make sure to put on the right clothes (and head coverings), speak the right lingo, purchase items with the proper hechsherim, send your kids to the "right" schools, go to a daf yomi shiur, and install a water filter in your kitchen. It's a lifestyle choice more than anything else. And kids can see right through it. Hell, anyone who hasn't bought into it can see right through it!

Of course no one wants to face the cold facts of how hollow their religious lives are. It's much easier to go through all the well-known and popular motions that everyone can see you doing and pat you on the back for. But to actually encourage the very activities that are symptoms of the root problem is really impressive! I wonder if he thinks that wearing your hat more frequently throughout the day will also help you come closer to God.

I recall an incident from a few years ago when I was at a friends house on Shavuos. His mother was telling the family how proud she was of their 9-year-old daughter. "She got to shul in time for leining and heard the aseres hadibros!" The mother beamed proudly at her daughter. My friend turned to his family and said, "Yes, that is really nice. Now, can anyone actually tell me what the aseres hadibros are?" All he got in return were funny looks. No one found it strange that they were so proud of going through the motions of a barely understood exercise rather than actually understanding the real idea behind the activity.

Baruch Hashem we have such insightful figures instructing frum society on how to fix it's problems. Im yirtzeh Hashem everything will be fine if we can just keep our eyes closed a bit longer and answer Amen with a bit more kavana.

(I can feel the growth happening already... Baruch Hashem!)

* I don't think any of these things are bad in and of themselves. It's when their presence is mistaken for actual genuine spiritual content that there's a problem.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Why I Don't Write

Things have been kind of slow here recently. Some people have complained to me about that, saying that they are eager to hear more of my thoughts. As much as I'd always like to please my loyal readers, sometimes I just don't have anything substantive to write about. As any reader of this blog knows, most of my rants here focus on the various stupidities that are rampant in chareidi society. That's the society that I came from, and it's about those issues that I feel I have worthwhile ideas to express. Although I'm not a part of that community anymore, I try to stay informed of the trends and issues of that world, watching it all closely, and trying to find indications of all those much denied, yet horribly widespread dysfunctions which afflict chareidi society.

The obvious question that I'm often asked is, Why do I still bother with that world? If I've left it behind, why do I concern myself with it so much? I've already dealt a bit with this question in various prior posts, but one aspect that I have to admit to is that, psychologically, I simply haven't fully left that world. There's a part of me that still is there in some sense. I still have, if not one foot still stuck in that world, at least a toe testing those waters, or an eye looking over my shoulder.

However, the more time I spend out of that world, the less and less I find myself caring about all that stuff. All the inanities, the hypocrisies, the shallowness, the misplaced priorities, the whitewashing, the denial, the petty frumkeit-ness, the halachic one-upmanship, the distorted Torah, all the craziness that there is to focus on of my former world, is just mattering less and less to me each passing day.

The inevitable result of my waning interest in such matters is that I find myself with so much less to ruminate (and fulminate) about, which obviously translates into less to blog about. Despite the fact that there are quite a few issues going on that catch my attention, and I often do have my own personal experiences to draw upon that relate to these issues, I'm just not bothered enough by it all to put in the effort and get all worked up about it like I used to.

Occasionally I hear about something which touches on an issue very close to me and it drags me right back into that world, full force, and I find myself getting all agitated and upset, but by the time I've gathered up my few thoughts on the matter, and am ready to put them down on paper, I'm thinking to myself, "Why bother?"

Overall, I think this is a good thing. It seems I'm making progress in finally getting past it all. Although a part of me does feel bad about it in some way. Not having an issue that captures my attention so completely makes me feel a bit empty, dull. Thankfully, I still have much in my life to think about, but I never intended this blog to be just an outlet for my own personal issues. I'm not interested in rambling on about the various figures, experiences, and activities of my life. What I intended this blog for was to say things that I thought people needed to hear. I didn't just want to kvetch about things I didn't like. I tried to clearly make a case of how wrong, damaging, and screwed up the system is. Half a year after I started, it's still pretty much just as screwed up as when I started, and now I care so much less about making it any better.

In one of my earliest postings, I elaborated on the reasons why I bother blogging. I wrote there that even though I am not actively part of the chareidi community many of the issues still concern me. Well, I guess now I can say the same reason applies to why I'm not blogging so much lately. The issues just don't concern me too much anymore. And since that was a big part of what motivated me to write here, unless I change the focus or format of this blog, I don't think you should expect to see too much significant writing here in the future. I still will write, but it'll probably be shorter blurbs than is typical for me.

Or maybe not. Now that I'm done writing this piece, a whole bunch of issues are flashing through my head that I know I want to elaborate on. Oh well. We'll see what happens.