Feb 29, 2012

Gutta - A Memoir

I read Gutta - Memories of a Vanished World (Feldheim 2005) by Gutta Sternbuch and David Kranzler and found the first part poignant and fascinating.  She grew up in a Chassidic home in Warsaw in the 1920's and she describes her beautiful family and what frum life was like in those days, providing snapshots of the ordinary though special people (contradictory but true) she knew.

Although I was familiar with the devastation wreaked by the many ideologies of the time: secular Zionism, socialism, communism, etc. it was so interesting to read about these enticements from the perspective of an intelligent, teenaged, Chassidic girl. 

She attended Bais Yaakov from the age of 11-13 and it wasn't a positive experience for her. She then went to a religious high school with high secular scholastic standards on the condition that she would attend Beis Yaakov seminary afterward.  Rabbi Orlean radically transformed her way of thinking and she describes the spiritual journey she made (she was frum throughout).

The book has appendices, one which provide a historical overview of Poland between the two world wars and another one on secular Jewish ideologies for those who want more information on this period of our history and there is also a section on Warsaw.

Rather than painting only a nostalgic picture of Jewish life before the war, Gutta provides a more balanced view in which she shares her struggles and ultimately, her firm commitment to Yiddishkeit.

Feb 27, 2012

You're the Boss of Your Thoughts

The halacha is that one of the people sent home from battle is one who is afraid.  Once the war begins however, the Rambam says he should rely on Hashem and realize he is fighting for the sake of the oneness of Hashem's name and not show fear.  He should not worry about his wife or children. On the contrary, he should remove all thoughts from his mind except the war.  Anyone who begins to feel anxious in the midst of battle to the point where he frightens himself, transgresses a negative commandment.

It occurs to me that a lesson we can learn from this is that we can control ourselves and our thoughts.  It is not valid to say, well this how I feel so I can't help it.  Hashem does not give us mitzvos that are impossible to fulfill.  If there is a prohibition of being afraid, we can distract ourselves and not be afraid.  The same would apply to other negative emotions we have that are unhelpful if not worse.  Hesech ha'daas - distraction, turning our minds to positive pursuits, is the way to go.

Feb 26, 2012

Positive Censorship

I was in a Jewish library when a young girl, about 10, asked to use the phone.  I overheard her asking her mother in Yiddish whether she could take out historical fiction (written in English) since she finished reading everything else.  When she hung up, I asked her what her mother said.  The answer was 'no' because her mother hadn't read the books and her mother reads everything before she does.  I asked, why can't you take home a book for her to look at? She said her mother doesn't have time.

Why would her mother not allow her to read a certain book? She said with one book, her mother told her the characters did not talk nicely.

Perhaps many of us would not endorse censorship, particularly not at a frum library with Jewish books, but this mother is careful.  She is a sweet, aidel, tmimusdike child and I was impressed by what a good girl she is.  After all, she can read whatever she likes while she is right there in the library, but she is there just to take out books and only approved books at that.

Feb 22, 2012

What Happened to the Valedictorians?

I read:

"One researcher, after spending more than 15 years following the careers of high school valedictorians, concluded that most of them simply, "know how to do school. They are not the group to look for, for creative breakthroughs ... or for becoming notable leaders in a particular area."

Looking back, what happened to the students who had the highest marks? W
here are they today? Are they more successful as adults than those who were average or weak students? By successful I mean: Are their lives objectively better than others? Do they have better marriages? better children? happier lives? more productive lives? I can't see that those with the top marks accomplished anything special in life, more than those with average grades.

Then again, what does happiness in life have to do with high marks in school? Perhaps it makes more sense to see whether those who got top marks did something with their academic abilities.

A woman wrote:

I was the class valedictorian. While I may not be considered hugely successful by my classmates standards, I gave up a rewarding job to stay at home and raise my kinderlach. That being said, the same tools of perserverance, attention to detail, knowledge and the love of learning that helped me be the valedictorian are what help me be the mother and community member that I am. I believe that one has to strive to be the biggest success they can be at each point in their lives. When in school, one has to excel to the best of their capabilities, when at a job the same, in raising yiddishe children the same idea follows. Just an insight from a valedictorn whom many view as not going on to be a success but who feels like one anyway.

Feb 17, 2012

Is Criticism Ever Constructive?

Is there such a thing as constructive criticism? I heard someone make a forceful case to say that no, there isn't, saying it's never welcome and is not productive and the "sandwich" approach, where you praise, then criticize, then praise is not helpful ("Do you think I'm a fool for not noticing?").  Yaakov waited till he was on his deathbed to rebuke his children.  Moshe criticized the Jewish people only before his death and indirectly, with allusions.

Others disagreed.  Some people express appreciation when their mistakes are pointed out.  They don't want to repeat them! And even as it's uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of criticism, the question for the intellectually honest should be, "Is it true?"

And what about the mitzva to rebuke? And how can we do this mitzva when, long ago, the Gemara says (Erchin 16b) that our generation (meaning the time of the Gemara) no longer has anyone who can correctly deliver rebuke? Even more than that, there is no one in today's society who knows how to properly accept rebuke!

Apparently, the resolution lies in how the criticism is given, i.e. not as a personal attack, and not in a way that embarrasses the person.  Refraining from constructively criticizing someone is safe, for no feelings are hurt, but ultimately, is silence an act of Ahavas Yisrael?

Feb 4, 2012

Machsom L'Fi

I was asked to be part of a "Machsom L'Fi" effort for a few weeks, as a zechus for someone.  I said okay, since I didn't want to be "poresh min ha'tzibbur" (exclude myself from what others were doing), but the truth is, I don't understand it.

That is, I understand that you commit to a specific period of time, say 10:00-12:00, in which to be careful in shemiras ha'lashon.  What I don't understand is, would they ask me to be careful in kashrus from 10:00-12:00? No.  How is shemiras ha'lashon different? We are obligated to be careful at all times.  Why would I designate a two hour time slot to observe this mitzva?

I can see that if someone is constantly talking lashon hara and they are trying to stop, that they might be advised to start small and make a two-hour time slot "lashon hara free."  But many of us are well aware of the laws of lashon hara and try to be careful.  I try to do this all the time.  Committing to a two-hour time slot doesn't feel like I'm doing anything at all since I do nothing special for those two hours. 

Oh well, may the good intention serve as a zechus regardless.