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!