Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I was watching this incredible video of an underwater volcano explosion, and it reminded me of an incident that occurred to me a few years ago, one chol hamoed, back when I was still pretty frum. I had gone to visit the Soreq Caves near Jerusalem. These are caverns with incredible stalagmite and stalactite formations that have built up over hundreds of thousands of years from the slowly dripping minerals. (According to wikipedia, the drip rate is approximately .005 inches / year. At that rate, it would take around 2,400 years for just one foot to build up!)

One nice thing that the frum world does is that people are always encouraged to seek out the natural beauty in the world, being that they consider it a testament to the handiwork of the creator. So witnessing this magnificent natural beauty really moved me. It truly was an awe-inspiring sight. But then the guide told us an interesting tidbit: up until only a few years ago, no human had ever laid eyes on these caves because they were entirely sealed off to the world. They were only discovered because of excavation blasting that was being done for a construction project. Surprisingly, hearing this detail had an unexpected effect upon me. It just made no sense whatsoever - if god wants us to marvel in his beautiful creation, why would he have kept this treasure hidden away from the world all this time? I was really thrown off by this piece of information.

This issue continued to bother me as I saw more and more of these fantastic formations, each more stunning than the last, and I tried coming up with some plausible resolution to my dilemma. The best answer I could muster was that god had chosen to save this cave for our generation, and I should be grateful for this 'gift' that was denied to everyone but us. Kind of like getting exclusive entry to a prestigious art gallery. It was an answer, but it didn't really satisfy my discontent.

I'm not saying that this incident caused me to stop believing in god, or that as result of it, any dramatic changes occurred in my life. I probably went home, forgot about it within a short time, and my life continued pretty much the same way.

But it did definitely affect me. Like so many other similar incidents that I encountered. Every one of those experiences, regardless of how trivial they were, caused another chink in the armor of my faith. When people ask me what caused me to stop believing it all (an entirely different, though not unrelated, question than 'why did I leave frumkeit?'), I usually have a hard time answering that well. This partly explains why - it's hard to pinpoint any one specific idea that thoroughly changed my view. In fact, I don't think that there really ever was one. Rather, like the accretion of minerals that formed these amazing structures, it was a slow and steady accumulation of countless small experiences, incidents, conversations, and personal revelations that finally tipped the scale of my belief towards a more skeptical worldview.

It's kind of ironic though, how seeing god's beauty can contribute to losing faith in him.

Photo credit: flickr user Sagipolley

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Chanuka Story

When I was just a young child of twelve years old, like every other boy in my eighth grade class of Yeshiva Toras Kedusha, the mundane routine of elementary school life was suddenly transformed into a most tumultuous period, filled with the cacophony of hundreds of irrelevant details being endlessly fussed over. It was February and my bar mitzvah was only three months away.

I found myself suddenly thrust into the exciting undertaking of preparing for an extravagant party of which I would be the center of attention. There were seemingly infinite details that needed to be dealt with in preparation for the upcoming gala. Catering halls needed to be investigated, visited, and negotiated for. Invitation choices analyzed, deliberated upon, and then rejected. Clothes needed to be shopped for, purchased, returned, repurchased, and then fitted. Accommodations needed to be arranged for relatives traveling from abroad. It was all very hustle and bustle, and for the most part, I was more than glad to be at the center of it all.

Every now and then, amongst all the endless planning, my parents would inquire as to the progress of certain other preparations that I was supposed to be tending to. You see, although the celebratory aspects of the bar mitzvah planning were taking up most of our energy, there was another side to this event which was meant to be focused on too. Beneath all the silly distractions of suits and centerpieces, I was also expected to be contemplating, if only just a little bit, on the significance and meaning of the approaching event - my coming of age to Jewish adulthood.

Through the numerous life adjustments being subtly foisted upon me during this period, it was being made abundantly clear to me that I was expected to be taking my religious duties far more seriously than I ever had before. Missing davening was no longer tolerated. Sub-par test scores in chumash and gemara were not forgiven as easily. Sports and leisure activities were more blatantly discouraged. The comfortably casual clothes of my wardrobe were being mysteriously replaced by more formal and presentable attire. Most annoying of all were the numerous bar mitzvah related duties which were regularly interrupting my usual routine. The parsha I would be reading in shul had to be regularly practiced with my trainer. And the p'shetl I was to be presenting at the seudah still needed serious attention.

I was keenly aware that this upcoming event was meant to mark my transition to a responsible, religiously conscientious person, and I knew that my family was impatiently expecting me to start behaving like one already. But the simple truth of which I was afraid to admit, but which was clearly still informing my actions, was that I actually felt quite content to remain a typical, red-blooded, American kid; one who would rather concern himself with comic books and video games than dutifully stepping into the role of devoutly religious servant of the Almighty God.

At some point amongst all the hubbub of event planning and party preparation, I learned that it was a tradition in my family for my grandmother to present the birthday boy with a special gift, an expensive and extravagant menorah of his own choosing. The menorah is the candelabra used during the Jewish holiday of Chanuka when Jews around the world light candles to commemorate the rededication of the Temple in 167 BC. Every Jewish home has at least one fantastically ornate menorah, which together with other ceremonial items typically found in a Jewish home, is kept in a prominently placed display case. During the holiday, the menorah comes out of its case and is usually placed in a street-facing window so that all passer-by can see it burning brightly.

In the past, like most other kids, I had used an inexpensive store-bought menorah, but now that I was about to leave my childhood behind, it was clear that such cheaply manufactured trinkets would no longer suffice. If I was going to be a true servant of God, I needed to have an appropriately impressive menorah. I needed something bigger, something more grandiose and imposing, something that wouldn't fail to tell the world just how seriously I took my religious duties. And so, one Sunday afternoon, I found myself with my parents in an exclusive silver store in the heart of Brooklyn, shopping for menorahs.

As I excitedly browsed the shelves of the silver store, scanning the endless array of seemingly identical candelabras, I tried to ignore the nagging jumble of emotions I could sense at the back of my mind. On the one hand, I knew that my motivation for wanting this menorah was totally self-serving. I was being offered a flashy, expensive new toy and I liked that. Plus, I knew that a fancy religious object was just the ticket I needed to improve my credibility in the game of religious devotion I was expected to be playing. Yet, I also knew that the main reason my parents were indulging me in this silly extravagance (aside from the fact that my grandmother was footing the bill) was because they hoped that my interest in a religious object, even if primarily motivated by shallow self-indulgence, would grow into a more genuine interest of the spiritual dimension of my life. I knew myself well enough to realize that such an outcome was quite unlikely, and felt somewhat guilty going along with it all. But I quickly reminded myself that my grandmother had made this offer to me, irrespective of my motivations, so I didn't have to beat myself up about my lack of sincerity.

As I surveyed the shelves, I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed with the selection I was being offered. The menorahs all seemed virtually identical. The basic design of a menorah is a central stem with four symmetrical arms branching out on each side, and having various decorative designs carved into the silver. There were slight variations among them, with some having more elaborate flourishes, and others with more intricate detail, and they came in varying sizes, but essentially they were all very similar. This wasn't a surprise to me, as I had grown up seeing these designs all my life, but facing that fact brought with it a sudden realization: By acquiring one of these menorahs I would be donning one more mantle of the religious garb that I so preferred to avoid. It was a disturbing revelation and I suddenly found myself unsure as to how I should proceed.

And then I spotted it. In the rear of the display case, I noticed something that didn't seem to quite fit in with rest of the selection. There in the back, hidden behind all the sparkling and polished tradition, was a menorah of a totally different sort. Sleek, modern and as non-traditional as could possibly be, it was unlike any other menorah I had ever seen. Like an art deco piece, smooth straight lines emerged sharply from one central arm, elegantly angled to the side, each topped with a simple, unadorned, silver cup. It looked like it belonged in a gallery of modern art. Immediately, as soon as my eyes settled on it, I knew that I wanted it. That was my menorah.

"That one," I said out loud, to the surprise of my family. "That's the menorah I want."

"Which one?" my mother asked excitedly, figuring I had settled on one of the typically traditional ones in the front section.

"The one in the back, the one that looks… different," I pointed out. I knew well enough not to refer to it with that dreaded 'M' word - modern.

They finally saw what I was referring to. Uncomfortably, they looked at each other, unsure how to handle this unexpected development.

"Are you sure?" my mother asked. She tried distracting me. "What about one of these nice ones over here? That one on the right looks just like your brother's. Don't you want one like he has?"

"No. I like that one," I insisted. "That's the one I want."

Her resistance didn't surprise me. In the back of my mind I was trying mightily to ignore the vague sensation that I was violating some vital, unwritten rule of my world. This menorah was just too different. It was too modern. It was definitely not what they had in mind when bringing me to this store. Like the purchase of the black hat weeks earlier, or the buying of the velvet tefillin bag embroidered with my name on it, the true underlying purpose of acquiring any of these items was to signify to the world my willingness to conform to the religious standards of my society. These external indicators were very important to my people. They announced to my peers that I was one of them, an appropriately committed religious person, one who approached his traditions with reverence. We all knew that choosing this menorah was undoubtedly not going to advance that goal. There was simply no way people would look at that item on our mantle and think "devoted to tradition". It practically screamed "REBEL!" I knew exactly what my parents were thinking, how uncomfortable they were with my choice, but I didn't care. That menorah just spoke to me in a way that no other religious object ever had. It was brilliant. It was precise, and smart, and innovative, and cool looking, yet amazingly, it was still a religious artifact! I loved it instinctively, and desired it immensely. And I wasn't going to let my parents talk me out of it.

My father took a look at the price tag, clearly hoping that the expense would be high enough that he could claim it was out of our budget. Much to his dismay, it was easily within range. He looked at my mother, volumes passing between them in silence. I didn't need to be a mind reader to follow the unspoken conversation going on between them.

"What should we do?" my mother was silently asking.

"I don't know. He seems determined to get it," replied my father with his eyes. "What can we possibly say?"

"But, but… look at it!" my mother stammered. "We can't have that sort of thing in our house! What will people say?!"

"I know, I know," my father reassured her. "But what can we do? It is a kosher menorah. And we told him he can pick one out. We can't go back on our word now."

Realizing they had no alternative, they finally relented. It was mine.

Feeling that their plan for furthering my religious conformity had entirely backfired, they tried to cash in on their graciousness by demanding my commitment in other ways.

"But if we get you this, you have to promise that you'll go to shul every day, ok?" my father ordered me.

"Ok," I assured him, knowing it was the price I had to pay.

"And you'll practice your parsha leining every day?"

"Absolutely," I vowed.

They wheedled a few more commitments out of me, hoping in vain that by raising the cost of the object of my desires, I'd eventually back out of the deal, but they ultimately realized it was not going to happen. We finally left the store with the menorah in hand, me, feeling victorious and joyful, they, resigned and nervous about what this experience portended.

As the rest of the bar mitzvah preparations progressed, the menorah-buying episode remained an isolated incident. My parents wisely learned their lesson from that encounter and from that point on, when it came to bar mitzvah decisions, I was not given much latitude in the choices made available to me. Any time I was presented with a selection to choose from, I knew they had been carefully pre-screened prior to my choosing.

In the end, my bar mitzvah was a wonderful event. It turned out to be a typical affair, exactly like everyone had hoped it to be, lavish enough to get the requisite admiration, not fancy enough to elicit any disapproving reactions. I played my part dutifully, solemnly accepting my new status, displaying the appropriate degree of somberness expected of a budding ben torah, and my family graciously accepting the compliments of our friends and relatives.

With the grand event now behind us, the months passed swiftly, all of us gradually settling back into our typical routines. The bar mitzvah no longer front and center allowed me a modicum of relief in the religious expectations placed upon me. Like before all the excitement, I was allowed a bit more autonomy in my life. I relished the freedom to just hang out with my friends and pursue whatever fascinations ignited my young imagination. But the school year eventually passed, my era of elementary school education came to a close, and after the brief summer hiatus, I began a new phase in my life, high school, in an entirely new school, and a wholly unfamiliar environment.

The school that I now found myself in was of a significantly different caliber than my previous one. Sensing my ambivalence in taking my religious duties seriously, my parents had felt that it was necessary to put me in a more spiritually focused environment, and so they had sent me to a yeshiva which would sufficiently impress upon me the importance of those duties. Not only was the curriculum at this school far more intense, but the student body was unlike anything I had ever encountered before. Everyone was diligently focused on religious topics, endlessly discussing chumash, halacha, and gemara, even outside of the mandated classes. This was a far cry from my prior environment where religious studies often took a back seat to the more general academic requirements. More significantly, in this new setting, not only was I expected to excel in religious studies, but I was also expected to abandon all other pursuits that were not of a spiritual nature.

It was all quite a shock to me, and at first I resisted. All these new changes being foisted upon me were not what I was used to and I didn't like it at all. But eventually, after just a short while there, I realized that if I wanted to fit in and be accepted in this new environment, I would have to change, and so I gradually came to accept it. I slowly began to adopt the distinct mannerisms of my peers, changing my clothes to the more somber business attire that was common among them, modifying my speech to use the unique amalgam of Hebrew/English/Yiddish they employed, and most drastically, finally accepting the yoke of my religious responsibilities, which essentially consisted of dropping most of my former interests, and pledging to devote myself more seriously to religious pursuits. I was determined to become the kind of person that would be respected by my fellow students. And so I eventually did, gradually discarding my old identity and slowly becoming the person that my parents had wanted me to grow into ever since my bar mitzvah.

Before I knew it, the first few months of high school passed me by, and with the winter leaves crackling beneath our feet, the holiday of Chanuka was upon us. Like our family always did, the night before the holiday began, we went to the breakfront to take down our menorahs in preparation for the lighting of the first candle. As I took out my new menorah from the display case, I realized with horror the predicament I now faced. My recently acquired menorah, which just a few months earlier was the object of my deepest affection, was now a source of utter embarrassment for me. Yes, it still looked utterly magnificent, but I no longer identified with the image it conveyed. I was now a staunch traditionalist, respectfully venerating our customs, and this menorah embodied something that I had so earnestly worked to leave behind. It was like an indelible record of my sordid, youthful indiscretions, taunting me mercilessly of my shameful past.

Despite my misgivings, I realized that I had no alternative. The menorah had to come out and be placed on the mantle along with everyone else's. Seeing it there alongside all the other candelabras, their time honored designs proudly attesting to their owners' allegiances, my gleaming, polished sleekness now only made me cringe uncomfortably. My parents, seeing that I now shared their distaste for it, gave me a knowing look, their discomfort with the presence of this blasphemous object somewhat tempered by the knowledge that I at least had learned my lesson, cleansing myself, however slightly, of my sacrilege.

Once Chanuka passed, I put the menorah away, thankful that the embarrassing ordeal was over. These past few months I had tried so hard to bury that past life, to eradicate all traces of my former self, and this damn menorah had practically undermined all my hard work. I vowed to work even harder to prove my devotion. I would make sure that no one could ever suspect me of being anything less than a fully committed adherent, completely devoted to our sacred traditions. As the year progressed, I did just that, further cementing my place among my peers as a faithful devotee. The following year, I grew only more strict in my practices, and when Chanuka time came around again, I decided that it was better to return to using an inexpensive store-bought menorah than suffer through the indignity of what I had experienced the previous year. I would rather endure the shame of not being adequately sophisticated than allow the taint of modernity to ever come upon me.

Throughout the ensuing years, I continued this practice, keeping my beautiful, dazzling menorah that I had loved so much, hidden out of sight. Eventually, I permanently removed it from the display case, and put it somewhere out of the way, where no one could ever discover it, and where I would not have to be reminded of its presence or what it represented.

Throughout my high school years, despite my unwavering commitment to the strictly religious lifestyle I had adopted, there were times I found myself confronting mixed feelings regarding my dramatic transformation. Although I felt confident of the path I had taken, the occasional lingering uncertainty would drift across my consciousness, teasing me with fantasies of what my life would have been like if I hadn’t taken the turn I did. The myriad frustrations and disappointments of adolescent life didn’t help my state of mind either. As I got older, I found myself constantly torn between the ideals of the strictly religious world that I lived in and believed in, and the incessant pull of deeply buried parts of my self tugging at my heartstrings.

When high school ended, feeling discontent and confused, I found myself unsure what path to pursue. I knew it was expected of me to follow the route that most of my peers were taking – a few more years of yeshiva, maybe a short stint in Israel, and then a brief dating period when I’d find my bashert. I knew I didn’t want to do that now, yet there were no other viable options available to me. So I decided I would travel around a bit. Maybe taking some time off would help me straighten out some of the turmoil that was wracking my soul.

My mind made up, I began to prepare for my trip, saying goodbye to friends, planning my itinerary, and gathering all my stuff together. The day before I was to depart, as I was rummaging through my closet, desperately searching for some much needed travel gear, I noticed something unexpected laying at the bottom of an unmarked box. There, buried beneath a pile of worn out velvet yarmulkes and albums of faded gedolim pictures, was my beloved menorah. I gently pulled it out, and sat down on my bed with it, this long lost relic of my past.

Alone in my room, I took a long look at it, admiring its finely sculpted design. Despite the slight tarnish dimming its brilliance, I still found it utterly magnificent. So much had changed since that impulsive twelve-year-old had excitedly picked it out from all the others, but it still managed to capture my heart like it had the first time I laid eyes upon it. What was it about this object that so enthralled me? Seeing it again after so many years reminded me of all the tumultuous feelings it had evoked in my life over the years. The inexplicable excitement upon first discovering it. The frightening confusion of disregarding my family’s expectations. The shame of my brazen indiscretion. I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for those heady days back in yeshiva, a time in my life when I felt more sure of who I was and what I wanted. Wistfully, I briefly entertained the thought of taking the menorah with me, but the idea was promptly shelved as I realized that I had far more pressing things to concern myself with at the moment. I gently returned it to its place in the box and put it out of my mind.

Traveling was not the comforting salve I had hoped it would be. New experiences were constantly challenging me in ways that I didn't understand how to deal with. New sorts of people were introduced to me. New ideas explored. New ideologies adopted. New identities assumed. All of it clashed angrily in my head and wrought further changes. For a while I settled down in one place, thinking I had found the contentment I sought, yet eventually, the dissatisfaction would creep up on me again, and I would be off seeking enlightenment elsewhere.

Years passed and my life shifted further. The rules of my religious lifestyle gradually began to lose their relevance to my life. They no longer seemed to hold the significance for me which they once had, and I found myself discarding the strict practices and perspectives of my former world. Eventually, I settled on a more moderate and liberal approach to my life, one which didn’t demand such single-minded devotion to religious ideals.

And then one day, during a phone conversation with my mother, she informed me that she had been clearing out the house, and came across the menorah I had received for my bar mitzvah. She was coming to visit in a few months. Did I want her to bring it?

The memory of my menorah brought a smile to my face. My dear, beautiful, neglected menorah. It just kept on resurfacing in my life, shouting not to be ignored. Never letting me forget it. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about bringing this piece of my past into my life now. Did I really need this reminder of what I had left behind? But the way this curious object had such an endearing hold on me throughout all these years intrigued me. Maybe seeing it again would be nice. I told her to bring it along when she came to visit.

A few weeks later, when Chanuka arrived amidst a chilly December night, I delicately unwrapped the menorah from its ragged cloth coverings, and placed it on the window sill, visible for all to see. Taking a few steps back, I took a good long look at it, admiring the subtle grace of its form. Alone on the window, it looked out on a beautiful Jerusalem vista, the setting sun reflecting off its polished surface.

As I stood there, candle in hand, ready to kindle the tiny, fragile wicks, I reflected on the twisted path my menorah had taken, what it had gone through before making its way here today. For so long, I had valiantly tried to keep this treasure hidden from the world, hidden from myself.

I leaned in and brought the burning candle close to the silver cup, holding it steady, allowing the flame to catch on to the thin strands. It sputtered for a brief moment, unsure of itself, and then, suddenly, my beautiful menorah was finally alight.