Monday, December 25, 2006


Continued from here:

Sea monsters! Yes, turns out the answer to life, the universe, and everything is... sea monsters. I realize you might wonder how that answers anything, and I would too; but I've been enlightened now.

"I have pictures!" he exclaimed breathlessly, after his mad rush to catch up to me before I leave the place and leave his sensational discovery painfully bottled up inside him like a hermit who won the Mega Millions.

"What pictures?" I ask reflexively, before having time to think if I really want to know, which I didn't.

Taking his cue, he launches into a long monologue that somehow culminates in the grand finale of an incredible answer to all his questions, finally proving his longstanding faith in our mesorah, our sages, and by extension, our God. It goes something like this:

His difficulties all started with the realization that the physical world doesn't really work the way our sages portray it. Once that realization hits -- and when it does, it hits hard -- you start to feel unsure in the logic, metaphysics, philosophy, and theology of our sages as well. After all, if they're wrong in one field of human knowledge, they might be wrong in the others as well. At least it bears investigating. And the result of those investigations is what is feared the most. It is almost an instinctive dread -- a reluctance to take that first step down the slope at the bottom of which we have been taught lies unimaginable horror and debasement.

Now he has nipped the original problem in the bud. Our sages aren't mistaken in the ways of the world; it is we who are simply ignorant and yet to discover how right they really were! And he has the exhibit to prove it. As is well known, Rashi, the brilliant and highly regarded medieval commentator, claims the existence of man-mating mermaids (what fun!); he even identifies them as siren, the name derived from Greek mythology. What do we do with an obviously mythical creature taken for genuine in our mesoreh? Why, we claim it is genuine!

"The Asian tsunami uncovered amazing creatures," he tells me. "They prove our sages right!"

I know immediately that he is referring to these pictures. These hoaxes have been making the rounds for a long time. But he is convinced.

"Look what the scientists didn't know, but our holy sages did!" he exclaims with great fervor and conviction. His eyes glow with an almost sacred zeal. It suddenly dawns on me that he has invested great emotional capital in persuading me of the correctness of his view. He is hoping to use my change of heart to help dissipate his own troubling and ever-increasing doubts.

"If we didn't know about this, what else don't we know?" he continues excitedly. "We may yet be wrong -- and our sages right -- in medicine, cosmology, physics, zoology......" his voice trails off. I don't know if it is because he suddenly realizes the absurdity of carrying the argument this far, or because he considers his arguments self evident and obviously correct by now. Whatever the case, he finishes with an expectant smile and semi-triumphant but obviously worried demeanor, waiting for my reaction.

I make a split-second decision. Do I laugh at him and tell him he's crazy? Do I send him to the snopes article so he can see the hoax for himself? Do I launch into a philosophical and sociological discussion on the nature of myths in our history and culture?

"You're absolutely right," I say with the most earnest expression I can muster. "Perhaps we are really wrong, and our sages and mesorah always right."

He looks at me quizzically. "What?"

"Yes," I repeat. "We may be full of hubris. Who are we to argue with the greats that came before us? Science might yet change tomorrow after another tsunami, but our knowledge is everlasting."

The smile on his face gets wider -- very wide indeed. He is pleasantly surprised by the easy victory over his inner and outer nemesis. "Right!" he sighs with relief. "Exactly right!"

And thus I put him out of his misery. Back to the old childish and comforting beliefs of his cult; no longer tortured by doubts. (At least until he realizes the foolishness of all this himself -- which will probably not be long in coming, and at which time he'll start bombarding me with more questions, I'm sure.)

As I lay in bed that night, confident that he at least is sleeping well, this nagging doubt kept troubling me: have I done the right thing?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On the sexual habits of the Frum species

I apologize to those waiting for the second part of the story in the previous post. I hope to have it up soon. In the meantime, enjoy this light-hearted intermission.

And now for something completely different...

Hasid and Litvak: a study in contrasts

A certain Mr. Ken Mondschein, while "not passed out in a puddle of absinthe" -- as he assures us elsewhere with that self-deprecating humor of the struggling Literati -- penned a fascinating article about the online peccadillo's of Frum Romeos roaming Craiglist's shadowy halls of sexual indulgence. You can find it here:

Writes Mondschein:
"Orthodox Jews choose hormones over Halacha with the aid of sites such as Craigslist, the FrumSex mailing list on Yahoo! Groups, and the Israeli-based, Hebrew-language forum Hyde Park. With its long arms and reassuring anonymity, the Internet is threatening to radically alter Orthodox life."
Unfortunately, after venturing that tantalizing morsel of pseudo-prophetic prose, he fails to follow up on the implied assurance of showing us precisely how the Internet will accomplish the goal -- vilified by some, sought after by others -- of radically altering Orthodox life. Instead, he simply chose to quote the misspelled missives of desperate dalliance-seeking dunderheads. Mesmerizing, to be sure, but not conducive to meaningful analysis. I guess he would rather leave the research for the authors of blogs such as this one to expound upon.

And so, in the interest of furthering anthropological science and human knowledge, I started perusing "Frum" Craiglist postings while blithely taking copious notes together with my copious amounts of coffee. Only to be startled out of my merriment by stumbling into something I didn't anticipate: the stereotypical Hasidic / Litvish divide. Without further ado, here, for your edification, is exhibit A. Observe:

The warm-hearted Hasid, always ready to do Chesed and give contributions:

Chassidic, Frum Girls or Ladies. - m4w - 28

Reply to:
Date: 2006-12-03, 5:53PM EST

Hi, I am a Brooklyn Jewish guy who would like to contribute my lust to a worthy receiver as a casual or possibly ongoing occasion.

Myself: 28 yo dark hair nicely taken care, good looking nice slim body 5’8”

I prefer someone decent looking around my age and towards the slender side.


And now, the kalte Litvak, obsessing about... Halachah???

Frum man looking for special shabbos guests - m4w - 29

Reply to:
Date: 2006-12-01, 5:46PM EST

I am a frum man who knows the entire mishnayos baal peh , and I am looking for a special female shabbos guest who wants to come over and sing zemiros and eat the festive shabbos meal and then come up to my bedroom for desert !

Please , only females apply. And please be showered and groomed properly.Remember that according to the vilna gaon in his tshuvas volume 3 pp206-208 says that women should always hit that thang at least once a week with a depilatory powder or a razor.Obviously , as a litvak ,I am required to follow the vilna gaon's sheetah.

The stereotypes are true, after all!

Monday, November 27, 2006


His eyes. They betray his thoughts, those eyes. He's anxious, uneasy, eager, excited. On the cusp of a great triumph. He has his trump card now, and is intent on using it on his unsuspecting nemesis. It's not the first such imagined card, nor, most likely, will it be the last. But that little detail is lost in the exhilarating anticipation of finally -- after many sleepless nights -- proving his old, outdated, yet very comforting notions right. Notions he never questioned before having that bothersome concept called reality rudely shoved down his throat; reassuring notions he now dearly wants to believe in again.

His eyes dart around the hallway. Inside, the stragglers are finishing up the last minyan. The loud Amen's, Bruch Hu's, and other shrill proclamations of God's ultimate authority and insatiable need for constant praise reverberate through the entrance hall where we congregate in small groups to discuss politics, news, the weather, and the latest Chasidishe gossip. We have some time now, those of us who manage to be more punctual and start our prayers on time, and incidentally, also more courteous, finishing our prayers without feeling the need to presumptuously shout at God and create a deafening din in his divine ears.

I notice him from the other end of the hall. His eyes stop when they meet mine. A weak smile spreads across his lips, feeble but unmistaken, almost curling up in an amused smirk. It is then the realization hits me; I am the nemesis he is looking for, the one whose peculiar ideas need refutation in order to grant respite to his troubled soul. He rushes towards me, mindlessly crashing through the startled groups of amicable chatterers standing in his way like a runaway elephant at a Ringling Bros. circus parade. My heart sinks. "Not again," I think to myself, "not again."

It is quite by accident that I assumed this role. It all started with an innocent conversation on cosmology and the nature of our solar system, and the tired old Copernican debate -- which can't rightfully be labeled a debate really, so much as stubborn clinging to centuries old discredited dogma. No matter. I bumped into him holding forth on this issue in a small circle of friends, expounding quite masterfully on the well-known Ptolemaic position of the Rambam and other rishonim and explicating their position while bringing proofs from later sages agreeing with them.

"It's all quite clear the way it works," he argued, "they say so quite clearly in their seforim!"

I couldn't help myself. "Well," I started quietly, gently, but firmly. "The world is Heliocentric. Modern man knows that, now."

He was flabbergasted. "How can you say that? Can't you see the sages clearly disagree?"

I looked at him quietly for a second. "Indeed they do," I finally said, "but the reality is different."

He didn't quite get it. "Look," he said, rushing to the stacked bookcase. "I'll show you where they say so!"

I couldn't hide my sarcasm anymore. "Quite right," I said, "reality is determined by anything printed in Hebrew characters -- particularly if it's bound in hardcover."

He stopped cold in his tracks and turned around to stare at me. He looked at me pensively for some time, as if begging me to take my words back, make them disappear, erase them from his mind. He was clearly startled by the novelty of the irony just pointed out to him -- for the first time in his life. His mind switched into high gear trying to make sense of it all. If you listened closely you could almost hear the whizzing dials, switching levers, and running belts in his mind. Working, working. "Ah," he finally stammered, "you mean... it isn't really so?" Yes, that is what I meant.

We had many more discussions since that day. About the classical four elements our philosophical and mystical tradition embraces so enthusiastically; about nonexistent animals appearing in the Talmud; about never existing animals appearing in the fossil record; about sheidim and richos; about Pharoah and kishuf; about the windows the Talmud maintains the sun passes through each morning; and about the impassable but apparently also invisible Sambatyon. He sought answers, but our tradition let him down.

He grew increasingly troubled and disturbed, and I grew increasingly uncomfortable and agitated. Why does he insist on having these discussions with me? And if he does persist, must I oblige? Clearly, he is trying to hang on tooth and nail, trying to prove the unprovable to himself using me as a proxy.

"You know," he started the conversation one day, his voice filled with excitement and relief. "I found rishonim that hold our sages can be wrong in science!" I was growing weary at this point. "You did," I replied, "and I bet you found that printed in Hebrew in hardcover!"

Again, he stopped mid-track and stared at me, his eyes unblinking. You could hear the paradigm shift in his mind with a distant but thunderous crash, like someone suddenly shifting the balance on a playground seesaw while it's supporting your full weight. "Reality," he finally muttered to no-one in particular, "Reality!" He turned around, and with a concerned look on his face shuffled slowly away. Oh, what have I done?

He hasn't sought me out for any more discussions since that day. But now, evidently, he has found The Answer, and is very intent on sharing it with me! I wonder: what is it going to be?

(Continued here.)

Friday, September 29, 2006


Come Yom Kippur, everyone is friends. People who hate each other's guts, would normally rub their hands with glee at each other's hardship, might even deliberately advise visitors to double-park in front of the others' vehicle and watch with understated amusement their baffled attempts at figuring out whom the mini-van -- out-of-state plates, spilled bag of kosher chips on the front seat, soiled diaper on the back seat, worn Tehilim (book of Psalms) on the dashboard -- belongs to, even those try hard to squelch these feeling on Yom Kippur.

On this Day of Atonement, when we implore Hashem to forgive our grave sins against His royal highness, few have the nerve to harbor feelings of resentment against their fellow man -- at least audibly. How will we face the ultimate judge if we cannot even forget a perceived slight against us in this temporal realm? Surely, that must be as nothing against the terrible affront our sins have caused the One-who-cannot-be-caused-for-He-is-the-ultimate-cause in the sacred realm. And so, we plead, and pledge, forgiveness, and all are friends for a blessed day.

Did I say all? I didn't mean that, of course. Being a Hasidic man in good standing means there's a certain class of people you can never be friends with. No, not lepers, criminals, or creeps. Rather, you can never (on pain of ostracization) be friends with the class of people perceived as less frum (pious). That includes those slightly less Hasidic, not Hasidic at all, less Orthodox, not Orthodox at all, and certainly secular folk and Goyim!

Oh, you certainly can be friendly towards them. Business acquaintances, government officials, and your janitor, all might be included in that category. But you can never be friends. Not someone you enjoy spending time with, ask advice of, share your troubles with, or with whom you just go out to shoot the breeze. The negative influence they will exert might have wide-ranging and unforeseeable consequences. A risk nobody should take, in the considered opinion of the community.

This encompasses almost all of humanity, you say? Why, yes, it does! Glad you noticed. Indeed, the pool out of which you can choose your friends is quite shallow. As ever, you can try the bend the rules a bit. Claim a business interest. Confer some professional title on an individual and explain how being friends with such a professional helps you in your daily endeavors. Or just ignore the naysayers.

Do that too often, however, and your life is liable to get very uncomfortable. People will whisper, malicious rumors will materialize, and your spouse, children, and the rest of the family will start looking with a jaundiced eye at all your activities. And what if you find yourself surrounded by, excuse me, a bunch of doofuses (doofii)? Well, that's just too bad. You cannot, under any circumstance, compromise your piety. You are trapped.


There's another class of people you can never be friends with. You can never be enemies with them, either, for they simply don't (or shouldn't) exist from your point of view. For a Hasidic man, that would be those with an extra 'x' in a certain chromosome pair. The differently gendered. Besides very close family members, those of that persuasion should remain invisible and unnoticed to any Hasidic male. Perhaps meriting a murmured greeting and request for information when necessary, or maybe even an expression of gratitude when it would be particularly impolite to omit that. But certainly not anything more, and definitely not friends. Heaven forefend!

Apparently, two x's in a chromosome pair in proximity to an individual with a single 'x' is a triple-X state of affairs by default. There's no such thing as friends, not even in the company of other people. There's no such thing as mixed company. The mere hint of the presence of a woman in your circle of friends is enough to get the highly efficient well-honed community rumor mill going in high gear. And once that gets going, the going gets tough. The town gossip will have a field day. "Of course he is [censored]ing her!" he'll exclaim with all the dramatic flair and absurd ostentation of a streetwalker hawking her wares on Lexington Avenue. Everyone will nod their sorry little heads in agreement and leave with a self-satisfied smirk on their face. And on Yom Kippur, they'll even be your friends.

P.S. To those readers of this blog I'd like to say, consider this: perhaps we are friends. Good friends. Even close friends. But as Freud might have said in a post-Lewinsky world: Close, but no cigar. Just... perhaps.

Friday, September 22, 2006


"I'm very worried."

This sentiment is now apparent all around on the facial expression and nervous manner of the exceedingly devout. On this Rosh Hashanah, will my good deeds outweigh the bad? On this Day of Judgment, will I prevail before the righteous Judge? The anxiety is so palpable you'd think someone brainwashed these poor folks into thinking their very life depended upon upholding some strange customs and practices that can never be perfectly upheld.

And you'd be right.

Life, health, success, and happiness all depend on that very thing, according to religious teaching. And you better hope your efforts are found to be adequate, because the consequence of the converse can be dreadful. Famine, pestilence, wild animals, fire, sword, and just plain "death" are all mentioned in the liturgy, as a gentle hint of what the ultimate Judge in his ultimate Righteousness is capable of if you piss him off. You had better not do that. Him being very fickle, you have your work cut out for you. This sentiment is particularly acute now, since our tradition perceives of Him in this time of the year as an exacting King judging all living things without any compromise -- with a pettiness more befitting the proverbial Queen, if you ask me. But nobody does.

And so, anxiety and apprehension are widespread. Truth be told, it is widespread year round when it comes to observing Halacha, the God-given code of law His chosen people were chosen to choose for themselves with the gentle inducement of the ultimate threat of dropping a small mountain on their collective heads. But that is about the holiday of Shavuoth -- you'll have to wait for that story. At any rate, performance anxiety is widespread and entrenched when it comes to Mitzvahs. Many things are passionately repeated, minutely examined, and just all-around obsessed about -- just to make sure it's being done right and the Lord is properly appeased. Too many things to mention really; enough to say the atmosphere sometimes resembles an OCD inpatient clinic with a new shipment of particularly colorful and obsessed characters.

A particularly egregious example is this very holiday. The Torah (allegedly) commands us to sound a horn, or Shofar, on Rosh Hashanah; you'd think we'd take a horn and sound it, and that'd be that. But no. Due to our ever increasing doubts on how this should be done, exactly, and what kind of blowing God meant to be pleased by, we now blow the Shofar one hundred times, in every which way a human brain can conceive. But that isn't enough. We then repeat the whole exercise on the next day, just in case, you know, our calendar happens to be off by one or something.

Wait, we're not finished.

Seems some of our holy sages were particularly concerned with the prohibition of doing work on the Sabbath. A capital offense, in the eyes of God. What happens if, say, someone decides to learn how to sound the horn on a Rosh Hashanah day that happens to fall on the Sabbath? Being that it isn't that easy to do, he decides to seek out a teacher. But he's worried that the teacher doesn't have a Shofar of his own. See, he's a careful fellow; likes to cover his bases -- it's just that he happened to forget he doesn't know how to blow up until the last possible minute. In his mad dash to finish learning how to do this while there's still time to do it, he grabs his own Shofar and rushes out the door to go find the teacher before he takes his afternoon nap. Now, he just earned himself the death penalty! See, by prohibiting "work" God meant to proscribe carrying anything on the street no matter how light, in the same sense that blowing a horn means creating a centuplicate racket.

How reasonable is this scenario with the forgetful fellow, you ask? Well, how reasonable is it that you're still dirty after washing today for the 9th time? That is why it has a three-letter abbreviation and earns a prominent place in the DSM IV. This fantastical scenario sufficiently troubled our sages to compel them to scrape this whole blowing business when Rosh Hashanah happens to fall on Shabbos, as it does this year. Lock, stock, and barrel. Not a hundred sounds, not fifty, not ten, and not one. Nothing. Zero. Makes perfect sense.

Is it any wonder we suffer religious angst?

Some would delight in pointing out that skeptics and atheists don't escape feelings of angst, either. Existential angst. The question then is: Are we cursed by our very humanity to feeling angst, or are we blessed to suffer existential angst, which defines us as humans?

Wishing a happy and angst-free New Year to all our readers.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Forgive Me

Early morning. All is quiet. Darkness has yet to yield its boorish grip on a slumbering world; the warming rays of sunshine's hope some hours away yet. An early morning fall chill permeates the air, serving the world as a gentle reminder to prepare for the upcoming winter months sure to bring much harsher weather. Yet, for an entire subset of the population, this scene is also the setting for a reminder more profound, more stirring, and even more worrying than this: Selichos!

Soon, there is a soft rustling on the street. Those punctual folk, prone to arrive a couple of minutes early even when the starting time is already an early 4:30 AM, can be seen rushing to Shul with sleepy eyes and untidy Peyos. They will get an early start in the Mikveh, immersing themselves in its warm not-yet-soiled waters with great sincerity in solemn anticipation of one of the great prayer events in the Jewish calendar: Selichos!

Soon the rustling grows louder and even louder still, until the entire neighborhood is full of the sound of old and young, tired and fresh, men and women, fathers with their children, all determinedly rushing -- amid excited whispers (the voices seemingly hushed by the darkness itself) of "Good Morning" -- to their own destination. The hubbub may resemble a mid-morning bazaar, but the darkness outside and the gravitas inside inform us of a reality more profound: Selichos!

The synagogue is full; the Rebbe appears. A silence falls over the crowd. The Chazan starts the prayers in a strong and booming voice, and the congregation follows. The hall fills with a cacophony of heart-rending cries, and the familiar and wrenching singsong and soulful chants sends a shudder down the spine: Selichos!

Amid the crowd is a boy, about fourteen, fifteen, or perhaps sixteen years of age. He, too, is swept up in the ambiance of his surroundings. Oh, how the burden of his boyish sins now weigh upon his shoulders! Oh Lord, "The soul is yours; the body -- your work; have pity..." he chants wistfully. The crowd grows louder. Soon, it becomes difficult to hear one's own voice over the din. The boy feels part of something bigger, something loftier than what human eyes can see or the human brain comprehend. He cries, he beseeches, he begs, and finally, staunchly requests: Forgive my sins, oh Lord! I will no longer spend time with worthless, earthly pursuits rather than spending the time learning Torah. I resolve no longer to have any impure thoughts, come what may. I will not hate anyone, nor hurt someone out of revenge. I promise! The atmosphere now feels elevated, spiritually rarefied. A deep inner contentment sets in, a spiritual glow that soothes the deepest parts of the soul and leaves an incredible longing for the divine and only a dull awareness of material reality. A harbinger of things to come; a good omen for the next couple of weeks -- the high-holiday season has only started, and the spiritual well is already filling. How comforting is the words spoken to our loving Father: Forgive me!

Fast-forward a couple of decades...

The setting is the same, the atmosphere identical. Everything and everyone around has gotten a bit older, a bit more tired and decrepit perhaps, but remained in essence unchanged. But the boy, oh that boy, has changed dramatically. Not that anyone could tell, of course. He appears for all the world as they would expect, with the accoutrements and necessary trappings of all other similar boys grown up in the past couple of decades. But the essence, the spirit, the very soul -- if I may call it that, that has changed. Forgive me!

You see, the boy had refused to remain forever ignorant, as is deemed proper by the spiritual leaders, the supposed wise and saintly men of great wisdom. He embarked on a long and bumpy journey to uncover the Truth. He ate from the tree of knowledge along the way, and grew progressively enlightened. He engaged his intellectual faculties in their highest gear, as best he knew how. And indeed, he uncovered a very unsettling Truth. His worst fears were confirmed, his nightmare brought to life. He has seen the man behind the curtain; there's no turning back now. He is living a lie! He's been taken in by a big hoax! The vagaries of life have conspired to place him in a society with many ingrained and strongly held false beliefs, from where it's practically impossible to get out. Forgive me!

The Chazan again chants with his booming voice; the crowd cries out in thunderous response. But that boy no longer beseeches, cries, begs or demands. There is no longer anyone towards whom to direct those entreaties. Like the old, torn, and tattered security blanket of a young child, the time to discard the illusory comfort of the illusory God has long past. Forgive me!

In place of the old promises not to sin, there remains the amazed bemusement at the incredibly sycophantic and obsequious nature of the prescribed prayers. In place of the soothing, spiritual glow, a troublesome antagonism now brews within. In place of longing for the divine, there remains the dull ache of the realization that he remains trapped in this alien society. Yet, it is still a harbinger of things to come: of a month spent in subjugation and prayer to a being he doesn't believe in; a month of great financial and personal sacrifice to rituals that now seem useless to him; and a month of indoctrinating his children in a way of life he's lost faith in. Forgive me Father for I have sinned! Forgive me son for I have changed!