P.S. Halfway through the interview, I realized that I was on the wrong wifi channel at home, which made the sound less than perfect, so if the audio is irritating, hang in there, it gets much better in the second part.
The [humble] opinions of a recovering Chassid
Being a minority, of a minority, of a minority (former Chassid, in the Army), I think I have a special appreciation of freedom. Not that long ago, I was full-blown Chassidish without a care in the world, shtreimel-bekishe, beard-payes, and proud of it. When I finally left that world I chose to join the US Army, were I learned to appreciate freedom all over again. I was made to memorize the words “I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life”, while having my own freedoms severely curtailed.
When I was a kid ‘freedom’ meant something else entirely, I was ‘free’ to listen to Moderchai Ben David, I was ‘free’ to go to day camp instead of staying in school through the summer, I was ‘free’ to spend Shabbos with my (slightly-less-than-Chassidish) cousins… But no matter the decision I made, my parents would be there to steer me in the right direction. “You’ll grow out of the whole music-listening thing, studying Gemarah all day is far more important”, “day camp is for little kids, once you start Yeshivah - you won’t even want to go to camp…”, “the Mechitzah isn’t as tall as ours’ at our cousins’ because we’re better Jews”.
For years I felt I’d been given extraordinary amounts of lee-way, relatively speaking I was hardly micro-managed, I went off to Israel to Yeshivah and was pretty-much on my own, I was consulted whether I wanted to learn full or part time after marriage, I was my own man. But as soon as I dared to flex my freedom to ask questions, I was told to “shut-up, and sit down”, “have some more faith”, “just study some more”…
Fast forward to today, and my idea of freedom is very different. Being free to screw up, and actually learn from my mistakes is a good thing, not having an entire community tell me exactly who, what, where, when, I was going to do everything in life involves some decision-making on my part, but it’s freeing!
When I lost faith in all things supernatural, it was at once quite liberating - no more worrying about Gehenom - but at the same time it signaled the beginning of personal responsibility. No more “Im yirtzeh Hashem, I’ll be fine”, now it’s up to me to make it happen… As one of my (false) idols Penn Jillette says: “freedom means the right to be stupid”. When I mess up now, instead of blaming it on divine will, I’m forced to re-examine what I did, and determine what went wrong. God is a crutch used by many people as a cover for laziness, “it’s not my fault that I can’t pay my bills, it’s bashert”.
Americans love to fetishize freedom, not to mention the military. I’ve become sensitive to the ‘F’ word as much as to religious terminology, coming from the world that I do, I feel uncomfortable with any sort of ritualistic worship. Whether it’s blind patriotism, or unconditional love for the military, we should always be skeptical, it’s our God given freedom!
I’ll be out of the Army in a few months, and for that, and so much more I celebrate freedom.
Far be it from me to blame the victim, but…
Vehi She’amdah La’avosenu Ve’lanu, blah blah blah… I’m waiting for Shulchan Orech, I’m here for the Shmurah Matzah, and Gefiltah fish, I really couldn’t care less about rest of this. I got up at five in the morning, ran eight miles, worked all day, and I have to do it all over again tomorrow. Afikoman better not be past Chatzos...
Pesach never was one of my favorites, too many rules, never enough food, constipation, not to mention all the cleaning, taping, covering, etc… In fact, one of my first kosher transgressions was to eat Gebrokts.
Across me sits a four-star General, to my left sits a Colonel, and at the head of the table sits the Frum Chaplain, a Major. I’ve been in the Army long enough to learn to keep my mouth shut about my background - ironically around my fellow Jews! When I was in Korea, I made the mistake of telling the Jewish Chaplain my life’s story, and from then on whenever we’d see each-other it would turn into a Kiruv session, so when I got back to the states, I was careful not to advertise my history. Until I got drunk. I had come back from Haiti just days before, was in the mood of celebrating, and decided to go to the on-base Purim party. Before Megillah had even begun, I polished off an entire bottle of Patron Silver, and by the time the festivities began, I was hammered. I don’t remember much of that day, but I must have spilled the beans, because suddenly I was called “the Satmar guy” (I never was Satmar per se, but to outsiders we’re all “Satmar”) . I stayed away for a while after that, I didn’t want a repeat of Korea, but people are constantly coming and going in the Army, so I felt safe showing my face again this year for the Seder.
“So any ideas on why we have been persecuted in every generation?” The Chaplain/Rabbi asks the crowd, “because y’all are God’s chosen people” says the General, a fifty-something African-American Christian. Of course he’s gonna say that, what else would he say… And so the conversation goes on for a couple of minutes, when out of nowhere someone asks, “maybe we’re doing something to deserve it”.
I’ve been to some strange (by Chassidishe standards) Sedarim, but I’ve never heard anyone drop this sort of doozey, I carry a healthy amount of Jewish guilt, but even I found the implication a bit harsh. I have wondered if maybe we overstate the amount of hatred there is out there for us Heebs, one of the most common questions I get when I go home for a visit is whether I encounter a lot of anti-Semitism in the outside world, and specifically in the army, (the answer is no). Of course the question gained everyones attention, a universal condemnation, and a hasty change of subject, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
First a disclaimer: I am in no way diminishing, or apologizing for the terrible suffering Jews have suffered for thousands of years, but...
On the one hand, isn’t it a good thing that we talk about persecution, in order to preventing it from happening again? “Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it” - right?
On the other hand, we Jews are a bit obsessed with our own victimhood. As the old Jewish holiday cliché goes: “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” Every time we turn around, there’s another reminder of some misery from the past, whether it’s Purim, Pesach, Channukah, Tisha B’av, or countless other times throughout the year. To be sure, every culture in the world has an explanation as to why they are the most persecuted in history, whether it’s the Christians by the Romans, or the Tibetans by the Chinese. But we Jews have definitely perfected the art of victimhood. At what point though, does it go from “lest we forget”, to being a fetish?
One of the (few) things I’ve learned from serving in the army, is the effect “collective suffering” has on team building. It could be actual suffrage like you and your buddies getting shot at together, or even going through the joys of boot camp together. Or it could be emotional suffrage, just knowing that the guy to your right or left is willing to take a bullet for you, makes you closer. Similarly, when you’re taught from day one, that everyone’s out to get us, and everyone hates us, it fosters an “us vs. them” mentality, and pulls the “us” closer together.
It may just be a self-fulfilling prophecy, the more we talk about it, the more it’ll happen, I’m convinced that is what makes the JDL, the ADL, and other groups like them tick, “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail…” Plus - maybe what goes around, comes around, let us not forget all the wonderful things we’re taught to believe about non-Jews, remember im hachamor/am hadomeh lechamor..? (Ask your Frum buddy…) Not to mention all the mindless slaughter that happens throughout Tanach, and is excused to this day.
I’m usually the last person to defend Ultra-Orthodoxy, but when it comes to playing the victim card, no one does it quite like the non-Frum. If your whole Jewish identity consists of the Holocausts and the state of Israel, it doesn’t leave much else to get excited about, and when somebody dares not to join in on your particular orgy of self pity - people get offended. Not that everything the Frummies claim about the Holocaust or Israel is true, but in their defense, at least they’re consistent. Their entire lives revolve around Judaism, so they’re understandably not impressed by people -whom they hardly consider Jewish - demanding they join them on their arbitrarily chosen date to mourn. I don’t agree with them, but if you look at it through their point of view, it’s understandable.
I’m not suggesting “forgive and forget”, but instead of accepting anti-semitism as an inevitability, we should take steps to stop it from happening. There will always be ignoramuses, but there are steps we can take to minimize, and marginalize them. Whenever I meet new people I wait till they get to know me a bit, before letting slip that I’m Jewish. More often than not, I get “you’re Jewish?!” Yeah, what did you expect - horns?
It’s easy to hate someone you don’t know, it’s a whole different story once you get to know them. It’s a lot like when people who’re anti gay suddenly have a close family or friend come out of the closet, they’re forced to rethink their assumptions, “I know that guy, he’s not crazy… Maybe they’re not all nuts…” I’ve found that most of what many people would take as anti-Semitic, is actually just ignorance. I’ve gotten some shockingly stupid questions, but I’m always careful to answer them seriously and never take them personally, and I hope I’m slowly chipping away at ignorance.
Or maybe I’m full of crap, maybe it’s not even worthy of discussion, maybe we just need to shut up and take it, what the hell do I know...
…Back to the Seder though, where the Rebetzin is explaining that the tsunami in Japan was caused by god because they’re imprisoning two Israeli kids on drug charges, plus Moshiach’s definitely coming this year, and she knows this because when everyones electricity went out during a recent storm, the moon shone on her house…
I’m cringing, this getting downright embarrassing, this just sounds like those 2012 fairy tales… Oh screw it, why do I even bother? These people are lost, maybe we can save their kids…
"Stop staring at the mannequins, it's not good for you..." my mother said, I don't know why, but I like looking at those bikinis, I thought. What did I know about sexual attraction, women, or sexuality at all, I probably didn't even know the word bikini. All I knew was we're in Macy's to look for a pair of shoes for my Bar Mitztvah, and my Mother just caught me staring at the mannequins. I was mortified.
That was the first and only time my mother ever came close to discussing sex with me. There was no "Talk", there was no "Birds and the Bees", or anything gloriously cringe worthy like that.
My father on the other hand was a lot more brazen, one night a few weeks before I got married, I was trying to explain to him that I was used to taking showers in the morning, having done so in Yeshivah for so many years. Never one to mince words, my father says to me - very cryptically - "once you get married, you're going to want to take showers before bed - you'll find out why..."
Growing up Chassidish, boys and girls are so well segregated, one almost didn't know the other existed. We went to separate schools, rode separate buses, played separately, and generally avoided each-other. In Yeshiva once, the Rebbe was trying to say something about females, but instead of saying "women", or "girls", he described them as "the other kind". While studying Gemmoroh, whenever we came to a section that was too explicit, we'd skip it.
All this blissful ignorance is supposed to come to a screeching halt right before you get married, and you have to "do the deed". Usually about a week or two before the wedding, the bride and groom each meet with a "teacher", who proceeds to fill them in on the facts of life. The myths and urban legends that surround these classes are just wonderful. Of course there's the ubiquitous "hole-in-the-sheet" one, (not true) but the best ones are about people passing out, or running out of the room screaming, refusing to believe their ears.
One thing I've never been able to live down is the issue of whether to kiss, or not to kiss in the "Yichud Shteible", I was an innocent little boy, and I didn't know about the unwritten rule that apparently every Jewish Bride knows. I failed to kiss my new wife. And to this day every time we get into an argument, she'll say something to the affect of "well, if you would have kissed me in the yichud shteible..."
Ultimately the system must be working though, because the more religious they are, the more kids they have, so they're learning something from these classes...
The problem though with quashing any and all to do with sex, is the abuse scandal that we're witnessing now. Kids aren't taught what's right, what's wrong, and what to watch out for, add to that the sexual repression inherent in keeping teenagers, and young adults so segregated, and you're bound to have problems. Should the Frum community allow their kids to be just as free and open as the rest of society? Not necessarily, but there has to be something between, total ignorance/vulnerability, and a complete sexual free for all.
But again, what the hell do I know..?