Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Jew

Names, my friends, are often lost in translation, and it is a good show of sensitivity to names to attempt to render them as loyal to their language of origin as possible. One simple example is that what are today known as ‘Muslims’ in English were once known as Muhamadeans, or ‘followers of Muhammad’ (a word which even the spell check today doesn’t pick up), but after prolonged interactions between the British and the Arabs the former became more aware of how absurd a name Muhamadeans was, and ultimately called the Arabs as they call themselves, ‘Muslims’ (in today’s day the American president is known to be setting precedents in regards to pronouncing names more correctly, such as pronounciations of ‘Iraq’ and ‘Iran’ in which they don’t rhyme with ‘rack’ and ‘ran’).

I bring this up, friends, because the word to describe my own religion is not the word with the most exquisite intonation in the English language. In fact it’s a monosyllable name: ‘Jew’. In my mind there is no question that the way this word evolved in Romance, Germanic and other European languages had a lot to do with how Jews were seen for time immemorial, namely hated beyond all hate and despised beyond all spite. I think it’s quite possible the name could have been rendered ‘Judean’ or ‘Israelite’ or something along those lines, had the original transliteratiors of that name not had a disposition towards us, especially considering they gave themselves the long, flowery two syllable name of ‘Christians’.

That is without mentioning that in the English language the word ‘Jew’ has become a byword for every vice and degeneracy that one may conjure up. To call a Jew a ‘Jew’ is slander enough. And not the word ‘Jew’ alone, but also the English title for our holy sages the bearers of the tradition and authors of the Mishna and Talmud has become a despicable word. A ‘Pharisee’ is the most acute kind of hypocrite.

Yet our own hands are not completely clean of this behavior, since in our literature we give ourselves the flattering name of ‘Yisrael’, whereas a member of the nations gets the one syllable title which has become a byword for unruliness and ung-dliness in its own right: ‘Goy’.

Should we then, as the Muslims, demand we be called by a more flattering name? Our ancestors in Germany two hundred years ago tried a similar thing; they demanded to be called ‘Germans of the Mosaic Faith’. The name worked for a while, but anytime the Western European powers were in the Jew-hating mood they passed legislation that they should officially be called ‘Jews’.

One current approach to the issue that I’ve been hearing since I was young is to use the word ‘Yehudi’ in English as opposed to ‘Jew’ (which seems to be the approach our friend Ehav Ever has taken). My own approach has been similar, which is to at least call ourselves by the name of Yisrael if we’re speaking in a religious context. Though as far as official linguistic usages are concerned, I usually feel far more comfortable using a name that’s already found in the dictionary, even if it has a ‘goolis-yeed’, bourgeoisie sort of swindling connotation to it which is the epitome of every ill ever associated with our nation.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Slam II: מחלוקת במחיצות

So there seems to have been some major beef over at e and TRS's blogs about the very poetry gathering I just wrote about. It seems to be a culmination of sorts, between TRS and his ideologies and Mottel and his. Between the Liberal and open to secularism aspect of Chabad and it's conservative counterpart. While TRS is accepting of the idea of communication between the sexes online and even in real-life social situations where there is nothing to bar the mingling of the sexes, Mottel sees it as a cancer in the heart of Crown Heights, and laments the fact that in the very epicenter of everything that Chabad stands for, and from where it emanates to the world, there should be gatherings that not only bring to question principles of Chassidut, but principles of halacha as well.

To me the disagreement is of interest since I was not aware of this schism until very recently. It seems that the children of the founding generation of Chabad Chassidut in America have spawned a generation that, to an extent, has become just as Americanized as many of their parents before the light of Chabad shone upon them. Yet which is correct (in regards to mingling)? Obviously neither and both, but I wish here not to speak of the objective truth, but of my own experiences on the subject:

In the past I took the stringent approach to this subject. The smallest hole in a dam is likely to cause an entire breach. Halacha and the ideals of Jewish spirituality don't allow for concessions in this realm. Yet upon reflection I questioned whether halacha was not the only factor which affected my behavior. I was by nature the type to be constantly bent over an oversized tome of Talmud, to separate himself from society into a world of individualist spirituality and by nature shun the society of the womenfolk. I concluded that it was not only halacha and tzniut that kept me from socializing, but it was part of my natural disturbing level of timidness. I was only using halacha as an excuse to fall deeper into the trap of my own pathologically unsocial personality. It's not that I didn't believe in speaking to women, it's that I was unable to, even if the situation called for it. Instead of becoming more religious I was actually becoming a social hermit of sorts.

But there are also more generalistic concerns at play here, such as whether total separation of the sexes from an early age is really the best and socially 'healthiest' way to go about things. You see, while it could be it is the religious ideal, the fact is that in many cases the only representation one receives of the opposite sex is the gross misrepresentations of the media. Which in turn causes what I see as a derivative of the principle that "separation makes the heart grow fonder", which is that upon the absence of a person or thing a person can develop a fanciful nostalgia for them. I'm not certain this is always true, but for young men at least, a certain untrue and unhealthy glorification of the fairer sex can develop upon the lengthy lack of a female presence. In my opinion most of us are far more corrupted than the type of individual these halachot were intended for. If anything we require the unideal reality of "rehabilitation". In this instance of "עת לעשות לה הפרו תורתך" one of the only potent forms of rehabilitation is to interact with actual individuals of the opposite sex with the hopes of dampening of this false glorification.

That is if one views the problem from a psychological perspective, but from an ideological perspective there are also good reasons to be flirting. But it is only one of two legitimate, but fundamentally different, outlooks on Judaism. One approach is exclusive, as I was when I was younger, and states that every evil inclination that has ever entered the minds of our people to cause them to sin have been caused by the direct or indirect influence of the ung-dly nations whom we have lived amongst, but during eras when the people of G-d have shunned all influences that were not our own, and cleansed the heathen spirit from within them and without, they were capable of creating a Utopian, g-dly, purely Jewish, society. And if we followed in their footsteps, and threw off of ourselves all the corruptions of the alien gods in our midst, we would be capable of the same spiritual utopia.

The other, absurdly inclusive approach, suggests that "Torah" means 'teachings' or 'instructions'. The instructions are for life itself. If one hides themselves away in a Beit Midrash all the time what opportunity will they have to apply the Torah to their lives. The Torah supposes you engage in life in all it's aspects. In the time of the Talmud our sages were part and parcel of the society around them, and were able to employ EVERY rule of the Torah in reality, the same rules that, to our loss, have become mere theory and intellectual speculation in our time. According to this outlook then, engaging in life and in real world situations (like interacting with females), yet acting in a lofty manner though the application of Torah principles is the very essence of our propose here in this world.

All this is from my own experience though, and does not reflect the Chasidic approach to the subject which spurred the argument I mentioned. Yet I am not discussing the issue with those premises in mind since I believe that much of that movement was founded fallaciously, so it's not worth considering...

And to think; all this and I haven't even mentioned how this relates to the shidduchim issue!

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I hate to write things here that would give a journal-like feel, since that would suggest a poverty in ideas, but for me there are ideas of lasting value to be gleaned from this, so: I finally ended up attending one of Cheerio's poetry sessions. It was very....informative. And I saw two blog authors who I had not yet seen in person (Dowy and Altie,'s only right to link).

First of all in regards to poetry: Now, if you were to approach me in the past asking if there is any correlation between Chassidut Chabad and a great appreciation of poetry I'm afraid I would have had to answer in the negative. My surprise, therefore, at such a love for poetry as displayed by adherents of that Chassidut, in which each and every individual present was called up to read just as on Simchat Torah, was not small. Personally it was not only the approach but also the very content and form of the poetry that I found eye-opening, since, as with most things, I've only recently come to decipher what is appreciable about modern forms of this art.

I personally come from a background of great appreciation for the beautiful verse and form of the Hebrew prose of Halevi, Ben Gevirol and the like, and I scoffed at the idea that there could be such beauty in English poetry in the same way the French used to mock the idea of beautiful German poetry. But as I've begun to meet poets (they seem to be everywhere in my life all of a sudden) and read more modern poetry I've come to see that today's poetry is not at all about beauty or form, but purely about moods and ideas. And the sort of idea that's lauded most is one that displays the principles of "realism". So far all I can say is that it seems to be a method of great potential for describing ideas and feelings. I shall have to research the subject.

In regards to the readers: A very interesting crowd. All from religious-Chabad households and yet all well educated, well spoken, well written and well trained in any which talent they may surpass at. Truly a well-rounded sort of folk, the kind one rarely sees turn up on the shores of Brooklyn--yet an interesting phenomenon on the American Jewish scene as a whole. Wholly religious and yet wholly American and wholly secular--the sort of thing the Modern Orthodox seem to be striving for. Quite an accomplishment and hopefully a lesson to others as well. I myself on the other hand, have never been quite as well rounded, but rather grapple with every aspect of life as if I were learning to walk for the first time. Yet I don't believe there is any sort of intrinsic difference that separates us; if I had been raised as them there is no question that I too would have been just as well rounded. But it would seem that as for me, G-d had other plans.

I would go on with more meaningless minutiae about my evening, but it is not my custom to be lengthy here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

פנים חדשות

Well friends, I've decided it's time for me to again record a few of my thoughts here. As I said in a comment to the previous post some of my reasons for not writing for a while are depression, off-hour employment at a home for those with "special needs" and an attempt to watch all the episodes of the "Lost" television program in a short amount of time....among other things...

Nonetheless, one fleeting thought (if it can be called that) that came upon me last night was a recollection of something a friend of mine once told me. This was a friend who had advanced in years and who had been married for quite a while, who I suspected of utilizing the services of prostitutes (though I don't think he detected it in me). Either way, he once told me the same justification one hears for any sexual misdemeanor; a comparison between a diversification of food to a diversification in sexuality. If one were to eat the same thing every day the monotony would become unbearable. So with ones wife; according to him having experienced intimacy with the same person too often causes an unrestrainable and unblameable need for diversification.

To me, the fact that a person's very appearance changes often seemed relevant to the subject. For a face of twenty is not that of thirty, nor that of thirty similar to that of forty. The face that you married is not the same one that will be for all time. Perhaps taking note of these changes would have helped someone as my friend overcome this urge for change...