Feb 28, 2015

Less than Six Degrees of Separation

I have seen a man in my neighborhood, quite an elderly man, who said he saw the grandson of the man who was blessed by the Baal Shem Tov and lived till 117.

So that's:

the Baal Shem Tov (d. 1760)
the man who was blessed
his grandson
the man in my neighborhood

There is the theory of six degrees of separation that says everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world.  This is quite an amazing variation on that.

Feb 26, 2015

Following the Law

There was a news item about illegal housing no longer being tolerated anywhere in Rockland (the Monsey area). "An upcoming plan expected to debut in late April will crack down on health, housing, zoning and fire code violations in each of Rockland’s five towns."

This is a disaster for many home owners and landlords as well as their tenants.  To make an apartment legal costs a lot of money and then, I am told, property taxes, which are already high, will be even higher.  Presumably, that will make rental costs even higher.

In discussing this with someone I said, but do we believe that Hashem designates our finances for the coming year on Rosh Hashana? Do people really think they have to help G-d out by having illegal property? Does Hashem have no other eitza but to provide them with money in this way?

Well, what about the smuggling and illegal activities that Jews did back in Europe? That is how they survived.  One could have asked the same question, did they have to do things illegally to get what Hashem designated for them? 

Apparently, in Europe, when the laws were skewed against the Jews, and in the Soviet Union, against the citizens in general, the normal hishtadlus entailed doing things illegally (smuggling, black market, illegal activities).  But under normal circumstances, one would not be allowed to do this.

Feb 25, 2015

Making Money

Ami magazine has a column which features a successful businessman.  He is interviewed and is asked how he got started, what was the best advice he received, how he handles stress, etc.

Many of the people interviewed are chassidishe fellows (occasionally yeshivish) who formed a business from scratch and are making lots of money, without any advanced schooling and degrees and sometimes without much English. I get a kick out of it.  They have guts, they work hard, they love what they do, and they demonstrate that parnassa is from the Aibershter.

Feb 24, 2015

Unifying with Food

Rabbi Sion (Zion) Levy a"h, was the Chief Rabbi of Panama for 57 years, during which time he encouraged thousands of people to increase their level of religious observance. 

I read that the first thing he worked on was kashrus, probably for both spiritual and practical reasons.  What caught my attention in an article about him is that it said he promoted kashrus as a way of unifying the community, because if everyone adopted kashrus, at least in the home, the whole community would feel comfortable eating in each other's homes.

We have halachos that are designed for the express purpose of keeping us from socializing with non-Jews such as bishul Yisrael, pas Yisrael, yayin nesech, while our kosher laws unify us.

So what happens ... frum Jews undertake standards of kashrus that differ from one another! This goes so far that even among frum parents and children, and among frum siblings, there are different standards, such of which are mutually exclusive (for example, if one will only eat a certain shechita and another will only eat another shechita). 

There have been individuals who took it upon themselves to eat nothing outside their own homes, out of kashrus concerns. 

I think this is quite sad.  Even more than sad.  It seems wrong that our piety puts barriers up between us.  Many decades ago, it may have been necessary to have a safeguard like that (not to eat anywhere but at home), but today? It treats fellow Jews like non-Jews and that is troubling to me.

What is the solution though, for those who have kashrus standards that others don't have? I suppose it's a question for a rav.  My approach is to eat at the homes and simchas of relatives and friends if they are known to be reliably kosher people.  If they serve items (it's usually the vegetables that need checking that are my concern) that I'm not sure about, I will either not eat them or might ask what they are using.  I don't like asking because I am uncomfortable quizzing frum people about their kashrus; it seems insulting.  Other solutions are welcome.

Feb 18, 2015

Life Lesson

It was Presidents Day and although the trains came quickly enough, there were changes, the kind of changes that they usually have on weekends but extended into this holiday.
I was waiting for a D train at my usual spot and had just uttered a prayer, "Please bring me the D train quickly."  A D train appeared but on the opposite track.  Oh well.  A while later, an N train appeared on the opposite track.  I let that go.  After all, the D or N has to be on the side I'm waiting on.
Then another D came on the opposite track.  At that point, lots of people got up and went on and I figured I'd join them.  I hoped it was going where I wanted to go.  In fact, the announcement did say my direction.  It got me exactly where I wanted to go.
I thought - how foolish.  I prayed for a D and a D came right away, but I didn't board it! It was followed by another train I could have taken, but I didn't take it.  It was only when I was beginning to wonder whether a train would ever come where I was waiting that I decided to take the chance and get on the train on the opposite track.
I later learned that D and N don't regularly travel on that opposite track, so if it does, take it!
What I took from this is: sometimes we pray and Hashem answers our prayers, exactly what we asked for! But for whatever reasons, we pass up the very thing we wanted, mostly because we don't recognize it for what it is.

Feb 14, 2015

French Kids Eat Everything

I found the book French Kids Eat Everything a fascinating read.  It's about a couple who moves from Vancouver to a village in France for a year and describes the huge differences in attitudes and practices between North Americans and the French when it comes to food.  

Although the book's focus is entirely on food and eating habits, from the very start what had me marveling is the broader implications of her observations.  We live in our community, our country, our culture, and think (especially Americans) that "This is the Way It Is."  We usually remain oblivious to other ways of doing things.  For example, we will hear people decry the chutzpa in our schools today and often it is assumed that this is the way things are before Moshiach comes.  Then, when you read about Jewish kids in South Africa and how well mannered they are in school, your eyes open and you realize, chutzpa is not a "given" that we need to put up with.

We have certain ways of eating in America and it usually doesn't dawn on anyone that there could be another way of doing things (other than being exposed to the main meal of the day being lunch in Eretz Yisrael).  An example of this is snacking.  In France, snacks are not acceptable.  In the US, we snack throughout the day and on the go, making sure there is food available whenever going out, in your bag, in the stroller, in the car, stopping to eat somewhere.  Frum kids are fed out on the street in the spring and summer and can be seen with nosh regularly.  Pekelach for shul are standard and prizes are often food.  

One of the frum magazines recently had a two page spread called "Turn Food Fights into Dining Delights," which addressed problems meant to be relevant to the frum mother such as: How do I get my kids to eat more vegetables? My kids don't want to eat supper! My kids won't try any new foods! My kids expect unhealthy snacks when we go on a road trip ...

I viewed this article so differently as I was reading this book.  I looked at it through "French eyes" and it was embarrassing.  French kids are taught to eat whatever is served and this is whatever the adults are eating.  They are not given special dishes because they don't like what Mommy made.  There is no such thing as a child rudely announcing that she or he hates that food and won't eat it.  There is no whining about being hungry, and forget about making choices which Americans think are all-important.
In the French model, parents are in charge of training their children to eat everything, to regulate how much they eat, to teach them to recognize when they are satisfied (not full) and to tolerate being somewhat hungry until the next meal is served.

Food is not used as a reward or bribe or to keep kids quiet.  It is not a distraction and something to do when bored or unhappy.  Look at our frum world in contrast ...
The way the French accomplish all these "wonders" (and as the decades pass, the French are slipping into the bad habits of Americans) is by treating mealtimes and food as highly significant.  There is a culture of venerating food.  Now this is completely anathema to a Torah way of life, of course.  Still, our Shabbos meals, in which the table is formally set and everyone is present and there is good conversation and laughter, well, that's what the French do on a regular basis, if not daily.  They don't grab a danish and run out the door.  They don't gobble down their food because they're rushing to get somewhere.  Eating is a joyful, social experience, not a guilt-ridden or stressful one.  Food is prepared at home with healthy ingredients.  Children are trained from babyhood to try new things and to eat what they are served or have it taken away and not replaced with anything.
What we can take from this book is not only good ideas about food and mealtime, but also a perspective on a parent's role in instilling structure, discipline, and joy in their children which is vital to Jewish life and chinuch.

Feb 9, 2015

Our Father Our Child

I just read Our Father Our Child by Sudy Rosengarten. It was a poignant read.  She tells about her father-in-law, a G-d fearing, fervent Chassid who raised seven Chassidishe children in Toronto before there was any Jewish schooling there, quite a miracle.
He and his wife eventually move to Eretz Yisrael and Mrs. Rosengarten and her husband move there too, so her in-laws will have children near them.  Time passes, children are born, grandchildren marry and live in Eretz Yisrael.  Her mother-in-law dies and the book tells about how Mrs. Rosengarten and the extended family do their utmost to care for their partriarch.
There are parts to cry over and one very funny chapter to laugh over.  It's inspiring to read of a staunch Yid whose service of Hashem was with such a tmimus and simplicity.  And it's moving to read how the family admires him, loves him, and rallies round him.  It's sad to read about how he eventually ails and suffers.
The title of the book is a bit disturbing (see previous post) since referring to him as a child does not sound all that respectful.  It is true that eventually his needs are looked after as one looks after a child, and it is also true that it sounds like they had the utmost respect for him.  The title could have been better.  And the subtitle about the devotion of a daughter-in-law was unnecessary.  Although the author's devotion comes across clearly, the book is not about her.
All in all, I would recommend the book, both for the description of a fiery servant of Hashem, for the love of Yiddishkeit that comes across, and for the description of how a family devotedly took care of their father/father-in-law/grandfather.

Feb 8, 2015

How We View the Elderly

There was a good article written by Malkie Schulman entitled, "Old People Aren't Adorable."  She is bothered by a subtle disrespect that she frequently observes toward our elderly.  She thinks that the reason for it is that when we see someone physically incapacitated, we often assume they are mentally incapacitated.
She describes doctors and nurses not treating the elderly respectfully, though I have to say that I disagree with an example she gives.  Her friend wants to know why, when she takes her mother to the doctor, the doctor speaks to her, the daughter, and not to her mother.  She complains that he acts as though her mother isn't there or is a two year old.  Well, I think the answer lies in her question.  Did she "take her mother to the doctor" when her mother was 30? 40? 50?
This reminds me of an anecdote in "My Father, My Mother, and Me" (see here ) in which an elderly mother gently chides her daughter when her daughter says to someone, "I'm taking my mother to the wedding."  Her mother said it would be nicer if she said she was going to the wedding with her mother.  Likewise, saying, "I'm taking my mother to the doctor," sounds like taking a child, while "I'm accompanying my mother to the doctor" is altogether different. 

And did her friend sit quietly throughout the doctor visit or did she take charge? If her mother was the one who spoke to the doctor from the very start while her daughter sat in the waiting room, or if the daughter sat quietly in the examination room, the doctor would know to speak to her mother.
Another peeve that Schulman airs is the way people sometimes refer to seniors as cute or adorable.  She thinks it lacks deference and is appropriate for babies and little children.  And when kids went to visit a frum author in her eighties and came back saying she was "very sweet," she wondered whether this meant they did not appreciate her knowledge, her piety or talent.
I know what Schulman means.  I've also cringed at well-meaning comments.  For example, after seeing an elderly, ailing person, a young girl described him as "being alert." There was nothing wrong with that, but it rubbed me wrong anyway.  We often exclaim over certain newborns as being alert. 
I've cringed at an ad for a senior residence which described the activities available.  Maybe because it sounded like day camp.
Then there's "keeping the elderly occupied."  Like little children ...