Sunday, July 12, 2015

Kiruv-Proof Your Kids, Or Else...

If the message you send your kids - consciously or unconsciously - is that Orthodox Judaism is the truth, and the only reason you aren't Orthodox is laziness or you're too busy enjoying modern life to commit to that restrictive lifestyle, then don't be surprised when they're swept off their feet by evangelizers like Aish or Chabad. Non-Orthodox Jews make up the overwhelming majority of Jews the world over, and the modern concept of "Orthodox" is relatively brand new, yet for some reason, I see people across the Jewish spectrum, from Conservative to Reconstructionist defer or lionize - implicitly or explicitly - Orthodoxy, as if they have a monopoly on the truth. Too many non-Orthodox parents also give their kids absolutely no training or background in Judaism or Jewishness, and are then shocked SHOCKED when a smiling rabbi razzle dazzles them with a plate of kugel and a bowl of half-truths. I'm not advocating for a yeshiva education, I don't even send my kid to Hebrew school, but if all they know about Jewishness is Adam Sandler and temple twice a year, they will be susceptible to manipulative kiruv (outreach) tactics. 
If you believe in the tenets of Orthodox Judaism, then by all means live that lifestyle and be proud of it, but it's an all-encompassing, highly demanding lifestyle, that dictates every aspect of your life, and you should be aware of that reality before you decide to join it. Kiruv people are notorious for avoiding tough questions and downplaying the negatives.
Be proud to be Conservative, Reform, Humanistic, or whatever shade of Jew you are. Explain your version of Judaism to your kids, or Evangelical Jews will do it for you, and you (and your kids) might not like the outcome.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


I love discussing almost anything, but I'm a bit of a prude, and my own sexuality is one of the few exceptions. I was invited to appear on the Secular Sexuality Podcast with Dr. Darrel Ray, and I agonized about it for a long time. I'm an admirer of Dr. Ray's, and I love his podcast, and I felt like the Ultra-Orthodox voice needed to be added to his show, but was I the right person for the job? Eventually, though, I decided to go for it, and I'm glad I did. I talked about things I've never talked about in public before, and followed Dr. Ray's lead wherever it went (he has a special place in his heart for masturbation, so of course it went there), and we had a fun conversation.


Click here to listen or download the show.

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Little Something I Wrote

I wrote a piece in Yiddish and English, for both sides of the Forward. Enjoy, and feel free to pass the appropriate version on to your drum family and friends.

The English version:

The Yiddish version:

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Do You Like Being Jewish, Moses?

“What the hell does this say, Mandel?”

“It says ‘Moshe,’ Drill Sergeant.”

“What in the world is that?”

“It’s Hebrew for Moses, Drill Sergeant”

“Are you Jewish, Moses?”

“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”

“Do you like being Jewish, Moses?”

It was mid-September in the Ozarks, not the most pleasant place to be under any conditions (it's hot, it's humid, it's Missouri), but this was day one of AIT, Advanced Individual Training, where you train for your profession in the US Army, and I had just jumped off the back of a canvas-covered five ton truck, which had delivered me from across Fort Leonard Wood, MO, where I’d graduated Basic Training just that morning. I was trying desperately to hold onto the tough and resolute feeling I had as I walked across the stage only hours earlier, but I wasn't doing too well. A duffle bag with all my worldly possessions on my back, a steady trickle of sweat sneaking from under my stiff new black beret, and once again in my ears the question every soldier asks him or herself countless times ringing in my ears: “What did I get myself into?”

The last thing that happens before transferring to a new army training unit is having your issued items inspected. "Inspect” in Basic Training means summarily dumped on the ground, and rifled through violently. It’s also the first thing they do when you arrive at a new training unit. In addition to making sure you have everything you need, they're checking for contraband: food of any sort, tobacco products, drugs, anything sharp, pornography—basically anything fun.

AIT, was supposed to be a little more relaxed than Basic, but there we were, standing at attention, watching all of our stuff be manhandled by scowling drill sergeants.

“Who likes Starbursts?” asked a tall skinny drill sergeant with a heavy Senegalese accent and a mean grin. He paced back and forth through the formation, calmly eating grapes from a cluster in his hand. No one moved a muscle.

“Nobody? Come on, everybody loves Starbursts”.

He turned to one unlucky soul, “You, you like Starbursts?”

“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”

“Great! Me too! They're my favorite exercise. Allow me to demonstrate, and feel free to follow suit. Crouch down and touch your toes…” We all watched in horror as the poor private dutifully copied Drill Sergeant Icy Veins’ actions, knowing full well that his “invitation” wasn't optional, and it was only a matter of seconds before we joined him.

“Now jump up as high as you can, spreading your arms and legs out as far as they can go and yell ‘I’m a star!’ and then return to the starting position, with your hands touching your toes, ready to go again.”

Three minutes later, we were all gasping for air, drenched in sweat, and relieved to be called away, one by one, by the senior drill sergeant.

Senior Drill Sergeant Nelson was standing off to a corner as he called us over, far enough from the formation that he could've spoken in a conversational tone, but that wouldn't do for Drill Sergeant Nelson, he had to bark. He was looking through my paperwork, when he noticed my full name, Moshe Aaron Mandel.

"Are you wearing a yarmulke, Moses?"

"No, Drill Sergeant."

"Why not? You know you're allowed to, as long as your headgear covers it."

"I didn't know that, Drill Sergeant, but it’s fine, I don't feel the need to wear one."

“Do you like being Jewish, Moses?”

“I don- I guess? I didn't have much say in the matter, Drill Sergeant.”

“It’s a simple question, Moses. Do you, or do you not like being Jewish?!”

“I, I don't know, Drill Sergeant, it’s a complicated questi—“

“My fiancée is Jewish, and she wants me to convert for her, I need to know if it’s a good idea.”

“Well, you see, Drill Sergeant, part of what brings me here is the fact that I was raised in the most right-wing version of Judaism there is, and I escaped it only a few months ago, so I might not be the right person to be asking about Judaism right now.”

When I said "right-wing,” a term I thought he'd understand, what I really meant was that I was raised Chassidic, a world far from his notion of Judaism.

He stared at me for a few moments, and then I saw him almost smile.

“I like you, Moses, we’re gonna get along swimmingly. Get your shit and go inside. And don’t worry about Drill Sergeant Starburst, he’ll be gone in a few days, he’s being reassigned.”

“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”

Drill Sergeant Nelson turned out to be a sweetheart, but insisted on calling me Moses from then on, as AIT dragged on. Drill Sergeant Starburst did indeed disappear several days later, Drill Sergeant Green was an angry schoolmarm, Drill Sergeant MacManus was an overachieving former Marine whose unimpressed “whatever” I still enjoy mimicking today, and Drill Sergeant Floyd from the Bronx will forever be imprinted on my mind as the guy who introduced me to the words “quit flappin’ yo damn beak, talkin’ ‘bout not shit.” That, and his love for the biggest gaudiest Cadillac emblems, which he’d added to every door of his Escalade.

It’s common for people to “find Jesus” during Basic Training, since church on Sunday mornings can be the only break you get all week. Lucky for me, “finding Moses” meant two two-hour breaks a week: services on Friday night, and Torah study on Sunday morning. Although I was no longer religious, I exercised my right to attend every “Jew church” event I could. Weekly services were held in a chapel, led by a decidedly un-rabbi-like fella, and I’d sit in the back and chuckle at what seemed, to me, like Judaism Lite. But beggars can’t be choosers, and I fully embraced my Jewishness while in training.

I’ve heard it said, “The shul (synagogue) I don’t go to is Orthodox,” and I agree; I don't go to shul, but if I did, I'd want it to be an Orthodox (or Chassidic) one. Not because I think God prefers oy yoy yoy to la la la, but because oy yoy yoy is what I know and feel comfortable with. In fact, it was the music and singing (not the fasting or praying) that I had enjoyed about Yom Kippurs in the past. This, however, was my most memorable Yom Kippur by far. Early in the morning, dressed in our army fatigues, we were driven in a van to a real shul, where the layers of strangeness, to me, were staggering. There was mixed seating, a female rabbi and a microphone on the pulpit. And there, a few rows ahead of me, sitting next to his fiancée, was Drill Sergeant Nelson, presumably getting a feel for his new tribe. Everyone prayed and I zoned out.

At about noon, the president of the shul grew bored, and invited the soldiers over to his house, where we were wined and dined all afternoon. After months of intense training, highly regimented days and the same industrial slop for meal after meal, I couldn't get enough of the pool, the junk food, the movies. It was nice to forget that we were soldiers for a little while. I was probably the only one to appreciate how anti-Yom Kippur this all was, but we all had a great time. We returned to shul just in time for Ne’ila (the closing prayers of Yom Kippur), and were then treated to a hearty dinner to "break our fast."

As memorable as that day was, what stands out in my mind most are the calm and quiet, which I hadn't had in months. I had sat in shul, only partially paying attention to the vaguely familiar service, while simply enjoying the lack of people yelling or rushing me for a change. It was the closest I ever came to meditation, and I loved it. I did more deep contemplation on that day than I ever did on Yom Kippurs past.

After getting out of the army and enrolling in NYU, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had classes on the High Holy Days. If there were a God, she’d favor higher education over bitching, moaning and false contrition. This year, because Yom Kippur starts on Friday night, I won’t have class, so I might go to the library for some quiet contemplation instead. The only things my God would love more than higher education are peace, quiet and introspection.

If Drill Sergeant Nelson asked me today if I like being Jewish, I’d say yes without hesitation. Not the Judaism that came to mind when he asked the question, not the Reconstructionist Judaism of his fiancée or any of the dozens of other denominations, but my own version of Judaism that I quietly found, oddly enough, in the back row of a random shul in rural Missouri.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Blum and Goldbrenner are Scum

Sorry, I couldn't think of anything else to name this piece. And it's true.

As you may know, one of the yeshivas I attended as a kid was extremely abusive. I posted something about it on Facebook a few weeks ago, and it's been an interesting experience. I've gotten a lot of love and support, a little bit of pushback, many thanks, and a lot of questions. Some of the questions were directed at the parents, and why they let the abuse go on, which is a valid issue to raise, but not the focus of my posts. My aim was to expose and raise awareness about Moshe Lazer Blum, Shimon (Simon) Goldbrenner, and his cronies in that yeshiva, as well as the issue of corporal punishment and abuse in the Ultra Orthodox community in general. I managed to do all that, but in the process I reconnected with old friends, helped solidify Blum and Goldbrenner's place in internet infamy, and blew off some long-simmering steam.

But alas, I've run out of unique anecdotes to regale you with. I could continue to post things like "They beat us", "They were awful", "They made our lives miserable", but it'll get old quickly, so these posts will have to suffice. Many people have asked me to publish pictures of the people involved, and I would love to, I just don't have any. If anyone has any pictures, videos, information, or remembers more of the names of the people who ran the place, I'd be more than happy to publicize them. From what I hear, Blum lives in Monsey, and is a divorce mediator, and Goldbrenner teaches. There were others whose names I'd love to publicize, but I don't recall them. Not all of the rebbes there were abusive, but a number of them were.

I've gotten mixed reports regarding the status of Chareidi schools nowadays, and my impression is that they're better than they were, but still have a long way to go.

In order that these posts and the discussions they initiated don't disappear into the black hole that is social media, I've posted a link to each of them here. Check them out.

January 7th

January 8th

January 9th

January 12th

January 13th

January 14th

January 15th

January 16th

January 17th

January 20th

January 21st

January 22nd

January 23rd

January 24th

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Updated: #ItKeepsGettingBesser

I've lost track of all the It Gets Besser projects I've been a part of, but I love them all. The latest one though had me in stitches when I got my first glimpse of it. As you may have gathered, I love Jewish music, and I love my current lifestyle. I don't apologize for either of them, and I'm not ashamed. So when I saw the first video of the new IGB series, I was instantly in love with the concept.

#ItGetsBesser from ItGetsBesser on Vimeo.

This is a teaser for the upcoming video, and if the few submissions I've seen are an indicator, this video is going to be amazing. In order to garner submissions, one of the co-creators, Sam Katz, created what is possibly the greatest Tumblr page ever (I wouldn't really know, it's probably the third Tumblr page I've ever seen, but it's truly brilliant), so be sure to check it out, I laughed till I cried.

UPDATE: Here is the final product.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Tell Me How You Really Feel

I do a lot of interviews, and naturally I weigh what I say in public, so much of what I say may be repetitive if you've seen, read or heard me in a few of them. Recently I did an Podcast interview that went a little differently... I got home after a long day, and I decided to unwind with a few beers. I knew I was about to go on tape, but chose to imbibe anyways. The result is one of the most candid and revealing interviews I've ever done. The term "interview" is a misnomer in this case, it was more like a monologue. If you have any interest in me, my journey or what makes people like me tick, I would highly recommend this podcast. Beware though, the hosts challenged me to sprinkle my sentences with profanity, and I obliged. A lot. That, and the beer loosened my usual firm grip on language. So hide the kiddies, grab a beer, and enjoy!

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.



Thursday, October 24, 2013


All I asked for were a few home-baked cookies... What I got was being smoked to within an inch of my life.

It was the middle of the summer, and I was in US Army Basic Training, in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, a.k.a. Ft. Leonard Wood, Misery, or as it's known in the army as "Ft. Lost in the Woods,” the hottest humiddest (yes, if you've been there, you'd know that "humiddest" is a word) place I'd ever been to, and was in dire need of some sweets. I hadn't had any kind of snack in weeks, the only “candy” permitted was cough drops, which we consumed by the case. Heck, I would have taken anything that didn’t come from an industrial-sized can.

I desperately wanted cookies, and I figured my sister was the perfect one for the job. She was fascinated by the fact that her big brother was in the army and she wrote me about once a week. This required careful planning, because no food or snacks whatsoever were allowed, and all envelopes and boxes were inspected for contraband. I wrote her detailed instructions, outlining exactly how to pack the chocolate chip cookies (my favorite) to slip past the Drill Sergeants' thorough inspections. Laundry detergent was allowed, so I instructed her to put the cookies in a Ziplock bag and bury it in a box of powdered detergent.

Sure enough, that exciting day came and my box arrived! It was the prettiest box of Tide powder I'd ever laid eyes on, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on it, but first it had to pass the drill sergeants' inspection right there in front of the whole platoon, which we did every week night during mail call.
Just my dumb luck, Drill Sergeant Disney was on duty that night. DS Disney was a nightmare. He was like Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann from ''Full Metal Jacket'' with an ingrown toenail and constipation. When he "greeted" us off the bus on day one of Basic, he barked, "Yup, the name's Disney, like the cartoons. But don't let the name fool you, I'm nothing like them." He was a DICK (Dedicated Infantry Combat Killer), and took great pleasure in demonstrating and reminding us of that fact. The only time I ever saw him smile was when we were on the rifle range, and unloading on targets. He'd run from one of us to the next, screaming like a crazed banshee, "Yeah!! Get some!!" He never tired of reminding us that he was an airborne ranger, and the last place on earth he wanted to be was here with us. The other drill sergeants played along, and loved playing the good cops to his bad cop.

Disney pulled open the box of Tide, and I watched his face light up. "Damn, Mandel, somebody really loves you at home.”
I wondered why he was making such a big deal out of laundry detergent, but drill sergeants are notorious for their mind games, so I played along.
"Yes, Drill Sergeant, my family's not too bad.”
"Oh, they're better than not bad, they're great! Look at all the cookies they sent me!"

My heart sank. I was so clear in my instructions. Cover the cookies in powder, and they'll never know. What went wrong? Now they're all going to be taken home by DS Disney. Damn! I'd been jonesing for anything other than the gruel they served us. I hadn't had a morsel of sugar since I'd gotten here, and here they were, so close to me I could almost taste them. It was torture.
"You know, Mandel, ordinarily I would toss out the whole thing, but I have a soft spot for home-baked cookies. I'm gonna make an exception."
He looked at his watch, and said, "You have three minutes and this entire box better be empty. Go!"

I ran up to the table and panicked. The box was filled to the brim. My sister hadn't even put a drop of detergent over it. How in the world was I going to devour five pounds of cookies in three minutes? Drill sergeants don't mess around; when they tell you to do something, you’d better do it, no matter how crazy or ridiculous. That, or they make you live to regret it.
Then it hit me, Basic Training is all about teamwork and learning to work well with others.
"Can I share them with the platoon, Drill Sergeant?"
"Sure," he said.
Phew! I turned around and said, “We have two and a half minutes to finish these, let's go!"
I grabbed a handful just as the first few people dove for the box. Within seconds the box was demolished, and all that was left of its contents were a few crumbs on the table.

DS Disney didn't utter a word the whole time. He let us all sit down, finish our cookies, and all the while just watched us. Finally the three minutes were up, and he asked with an uncharacteristic calm,"You done?"
"Yes, I am, Drill Sergeant.”
"Where they good?"
“Yes they were, Drill Sergeant."
I should have known something was wrong; he was way too relaxed, he hadn't said a word the entire time, and that never happened.
"Why didn't you give me a cookie? I told you I love home-baked cookies."
CRAP! I knew it was too good to be true! I was in full-blown panic mode.
"Um, uh, th-th-the cookies were right in front of you, Drill Sergeant, you were welcome to have as many as you wanted.”
"Why didn't you offer me any cookies, Mandel?"
"I thought you would take some if yo--"
"You thought?! You f*^%@$g thought?! Are you paid to think, Mandel?! Get the f*%^k outside!! All of you!! Get! Out! Side! NOW!" he thundered.

Basic Training is essentially one long "smoking session" where you go from one running/push-up/sit-up marathon to the next. You get used to being sore 24/7 after a while, but drill sergeants have a talent for turning things up a notch just when you thought it isn't possible.
That night we endured the longest and worst smoking of our time in Basic Training. We did push-ups till the palms of our hands bled. We did sit-ups till our muscles refused to give us one more. We ran till we puked.

Those were the hardest-earned cookies of my life. But were they worth it? Who knows? Am I better off having grown up as a Chassidic Jew? Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? What do I know? But it gave me something to rag on my sisters about until the day I die, and I think a good smoking is a small price to pay for lifelong, excellent ragging material.


Note: I can't complain about Drill Sergeant Disney too much, though. It was he who made sure I graduated Basic Training on time. In order to graduate, we had to pass a litany of tests, one of which was the PT (physical training) test, which consisted of two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups, and a two-mile run. We had to hit certain numbers in each event. My biggest weakness was running, and he knew it. When it came time to run the two miles, DS Disney ran right behind me the entire time, inches from my ear, screaming "You better hurry up, Mandel! You don't want to spend ten more weeks with me, do you?! Hurry up! Hurry up! Hurry! Up!" I passed, and then promptly passed out on the grass. The First Sergeant yelled at me to get up, but DS Disney shooed him away. The games were over; I'd passed.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


I wrote this originally for the Footsteps 10th Anniversary Gala journal, but because I rambled on for too long, it didn't make the cut. 

“He’s a great kid, but a little too independent.” – My rebbe, at age seventeen.
“Your problem is, you always ask too many questions.” – My mother, when I told her I was an atheist.

         One late Friday afternoon - as I did every erev Shabbos - I left work and drove to Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley, NY. I didn't have a lot of time to waste; it was almost Shabbos. I had to run in, grab all the books on my list, and make it home before the zman, but I wasn't overly concerned, I had it down to a science. Entering the public library for a Chassidic man (or woman, or anyone Chassidic) is a big no-no, so I purposely timed my visits for right before Shabbos and Yom Tov, so that my chances of being seen coming or going were lower. I would prepare a list of books I wanted, run in, grab everything from my list, and then rush home.

         Growing up in a family of bookworms, we managed to work our way through both Frum libraries in town where all the books were written by and for a Frum audience, and were inspected for anything even remotely risqué. I could recite entire paragraphs of 'Bakers Dozen', 'The Cheery Bim Band' and 'The Lost Children of Tarshish' from memory. Eventually I graduated from those and started reading Avner Gold, Hanoch Teller and my favorite 'Go, My Son' by Chaim Shapiro. We read and reread that book so many times that it fell apart. As a Chol Hamoed Pesach trip one year, my entire family traveled to Flatbush to meet the author. It was a bigger hit with us that Six Flags ever was.

         By the time I was eighteen and married, I had outgrown CIS, Feldheim and Artscroll, and I wanted more options and better material, so I decided to sneak into the public library. The first "treif book" I ever read was actually a year or so before, when a brother of mine let me in on his little secret. Underneath the porch, hidden in a black garbage bag, was the first volume of 'Harry Potter'. I snuck it into yeshiva, and hid in an abandoned office to read it. To my luck the Mashgiach decided to check the room, and busted me with my contraband. I can still hear his voice yelling "Herry Paatter?!" in his Yiddish accent. He then went through all of our drawers to see if we had other illegal material, and sure enough, there buried in my sock drawer was my idea of pornography - a Sam Ash catalogue. Page after page of nothing but gorgeous musical instruments…. Needless to say I was severely punished.

            'The Da Vinci Code' was brand new at the time. I had heard Sean Hannity railing against it on the radio as “anti-Catholic” and “total nonsense”, which only served to make me curious. The mix of truth and fiction and historical references were very exciting to me, and I enjoyed what was to me a brand new style of story telling. It also made me wonder about the actual history that the novel was based on, how much of it was real, how much of it was not? And what about this Jesus fellow? Growing up he was rarely mentioned, and when he was he was called "Yushkeh", and I wondered what was the Jewish side of the story, what was our perspective on the guy. So the following week I looked up a bunch of books on the subject and brought them home for Shabbos. ‘The Da Vinci Code’ was the last book of fiction I read for years after that…

            I was raised in a very tight bubble, and I was incredibly naïve and oblivious of the world surrounding mine. The more I read, the more the curtains around my eyes began to slowly be pulled back. Each time I would encounter a new idea; I would take out a pile of books on that subject and research it. I couldn’t get enough of it; I was hooked. I was driven by curiosity, and a thirst for knowledge. I didn’t have a goal in mind or a certain kind of information I was seeking out, I was just following my curiosity wherever it led me. Eventually though I started bumping into problematic information, information that directly contradicted what I knew to be true. You mean evolution isn’t a joke? The Big Bang isn’t a punch line? History is nothing like what we were taught? Not everyone takes the Torah to be the literal word of god? So I read more books. I knew that I was correct in my beliefs, I just had to find the right book that would clear up all the misconceptions all these other authors had – it was so obvious! But instead of clearing up my newfound questions, I kept finding more questions and problems.

            It was around this time that I arrived at the library for my weekly rendezvous. I was walking passed the “New Releases” shelf, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a book that seemed to have a Chassidic fellow on the cover. I went over to get a better look, and sure enough, the entire cover was a picture of a Chassidic man, wearing a shtreimel/bekishe, walking across the Brooklyn bridge. “Unchosen – The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels” by Hella Winston had my instant and undivided attention. I grabbed it off the shelf, got the rest of the books on my list, and raced home – all the while thinking about that book. I was aware that there were others out there who thought like me, but I had only read their anonymous blogs, and I never dreamt it was enough of a phenomenon to warrant a book. Hasidic Rebel, Shtreimel, Da'as Hedyot - they were all amorphous enigmas to me, brilliant people who expressed what I was feeling, but I’d certainly never met or spoken to anyone who thought or felt the way I did. The only book on the topic that I’d read was ‘Off The Derech’ by Faranak Margolese, which I found very disappointing.

            It’s not a terribly long book, but I would’ve stayed up all night reading it if it were six volumes – she was describing me! I wasn’t alone; I wasn’t the only crazy person to have doubts and questions. As I was reading, I got to a story about a woman named Malkie Schwartz, who left Lubavitch at a young age, and had gone on to start an organization for people who wanted to leave the ultra-orthodox community, or already had left. This intrigued me, so I waited until everyone in the house was asleep, pulled out the laptop (computers are off-limits on Shabbos), and searched “Malkie Schwartz”. The name of the organization wasn’t mentioned, and her name was all I had to go on. It wasn’t easy finding her, but I finally did. It took me almost a week to muster up the courage to call the number, and when I did I got an answering machine. All I could bring myself to say was “my name is Ari, and I’m calling for Malkie, please call me back”. I was just pulling into a parking spot in front of Zisha’s Bakery on a Friday afternoon when Malkie called back. “Is it safe to talk?” she asked. It was a valid question. I had to make sure no one heard what I was saying, lest my terrible secret get out. I walked to the edge of the parking lot, and said, “yes, I can talk now”. Thus began the journey of a lifetime…

            Footsteps is many things, but to me, Footsteps is a community first and foremost. We are social animals, we thrive on interaction with like-minded individuals. For those of us raised in closed insular communities, it is even more important. Losing that close-knit feeling is devastating, and can have detrimental effects. Footsteps fills that gap. I didn’t end up sticking around for very long afterwards, I decided that I couldn’t live a double life, and I couldn’t shut my brain off, so my only choice was to be open and honest about who I was. A few months later I joined the US Army, and I was effectively gone for five years. Throughout that time though, wherever I was on earth, I continued to keep up with Footsteps through the emails I received. I got to keep up with the growing organization and it’s expanding membership, Thanksgiving parties for those of us who never celebrated Thanksgiving, graduation celebrations for those whose families couldn’t care less about a GED or a degree, the first camping trip, the new space, the ups and the downs. I was away, but never gone, and once back, I instantly had a whole new set of friends and a community to join.

Contrary to what the Frum community likes to say about Footsteps, they do not do any sort of “kiruv” (outreach), they are there for people who choose to reach out to them. They do not have any sort of position on god or religion, they do not require their members to be atheists, or to eat treif, and they do not encourage people to leave their community or their family. Every Footsteps gathering is either fully kosher, or has kosher options, and the membership runs the gamut from completely non-Frum people like myself, to people who are still very much in the community with no plans of ever leaving, and everything in between.

We can’t choose our family, but we can choose our friends, and I think Footsteps is the greatest group of friends anyone could choose to be a part of. I will forever be grateful to Malkie, the past and present Footsteps staff, the board, and to each and every Footstepper.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Interview with an Off The Derech community leader

I was interviewed in two parts by Heshy Fried of Frum Satire fame. It's a pretty good and thorough interview, and I was pretty candid with him. I think it would be beneficial to the Frum world to listen to what those of us who've left have to say, sort of like an 'Exit Interview' for their own sake, and if I may say so myself, this piece will be enlightening to Frum and non-Frum alike.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why Are You So Angry?

I've been writing this piece in my head for years, but Deb Tambor's untimely death forced it out of me. I was friendly with her, but not very close, and others have written about her and her story far better than I ever could, so while I'm writing with Deb in mind, this is about the bigger picture.

Why are you OTDs/Shkutzim/Bums/Oisvurfs/etc. so angry?

I'm confronted with that question fairly often, and each time I have to resist the urge to get defensive: "Why do you assume I’m angry? Just because I disagree with your lifestyle? I left to live life the way I choose and the way I think is right, does that automatically equal me being angry?"

Going OTD (for lack of a better term) sucks. It's the by far the hardest and most painful thing I've ever done in my life. Nobody chooses to be shunned, dump their friends, family, and support system, throw away their entire way of life, and everything that is familiar to them because it's fun. The decision to leave is not made lightly. We leave because we don't have a choice. We leave because the pain of staying is greater than the pain of leaving. We leave when staying is no longer an option. When someone leaves "overnight," they've in fact been mulling over leaving for years. They've been weighing the pros and cons, trying to decide if it's worth the pain and suffering they are about to put themselves through, trying to decide if they want to take this giant leap, not knowing whether or where they'll land safely. I didn't leave because I was angry, I left because I had no other choice.

But lately I’ve been thinking… We do have a lot to be legitimately angry about.

I could be angry that I got good grades all through school, but I can't write my own name in cursive, I can't do basic arithmetic, I wasn't taught science, history (besides what we learned from sforim), geography, biology, and the many other subjects most people take for granted. I could be angry that when I finally did start college, I was about ten years (academic and otherwise) behind the average kid there. I could be angry that my 11 year old surpassed my math level years ago.

I could be angry about my peers, who were born and raised in the US, but speak English as if they were from Budapest. I could be angry about those kids who get thrown out of their parents' homes because they wear jeans, lo uleiniu. I could be angry about those parents who are not allowed to see their kids, because these parents are not frum enough.

I could be angry that women are treated like second-class citizens, that girls are sexualized to the point where three-year-olds' faces are pixilated. I could be angry that gay people in the Frum community are forced to lie about who they are, or come out and be ostracized and treated like dirt.
I could be angry that men can choose not to give a Get, and the woman has no other choice but to wait in limbo till he has mercy on her. I could be angry that we get married off so young, that before we have a chance to think for ourselves, we have three or four kids, a house, a mountain of bills, countless other entanglements, and no real choice but to stay.

I could be angry about the countless number of kids who are physically or sexually abused, assaulted, molested, or raped, and instead of it being addressed, it’s brushed aside. "Meh, I survived it, so can you." I could be angry that instead of condemning the molesters, rabbis condemn those who report it. I could be angry that the Chareidi community has the courts and police in their back pockets. I could be angry that they're more concerned about what the neighbors will think than what is the right thing to do.

I could be angry that they're so obsessed with bein odom lamakom (mitzvos between man and god) that they've forgotten about bein odom lachavairo (mitzvos between man and his fellow).

I could be angry that when someone chooses to leave Frumkeit, they're instantly branded as “crazy," “a sex-crazed," “a loser," or all of the above.

I could be angry that we were brought up in a community that is full of intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. I could be angry that the pain involved in leaving drives many to depression, which causes many to struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. I could be angry that we were raised to think of sex as bad and dirty, and many of us struggle to overcome that programming. I could be angry that our entire upbringing was focused on negativity and guilt. What not to do, what not to eat, what not to say, where not to look. I could be angry that our identity is built on fear rather than love, on condemnation of others rather than celebration of their differences, or the constant need to denigrate others in order to justify our lifestyle.

I could be angry at the rampant hypocrisy, the blatant anti-intellectualism, the self-righteousness, the constant sliding to the right, or the complete lack of class or dignity of many in the Chareidi community.

I could be angry for the countless people who still look Chareidi on the outside, but on the inside they are someone else entirely. They call themselves "Orthoprax," or "Reverse Marranos," and most resign themselves to a life of quiet pain, knowing they will never be able to live the life they prefer.

I could be angry that the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, and the Conservative, Reform, and secular Jewish communities -  which make up the majority of all the Jews in the world - not only don't understand, but choose to ignore the problems and look the other way. They talk a good game about "Tikkun Olam," but ignore the mess in their own backyard. Their own cousins and neighbors are crying out for assistance, but they're so afraid of being called "self-hating Jews" or being accused of anti-Semitism that they'd rather cower in fear of the radical elements of their religion. When a Muslim carries out an act of terrorism, we are quick to condemn all Muslims if the moderate ones don't come out against those acts; why should Jews be held to a different standard? If the 90% of Jews who aren't Chareidi sit by silently, shouldn't they be held responsible as well?

Does every Chareidi Jew fall into these sweeping generalities? Of course not. I get along wonderfully with my family and many old friends. But far too many do, and many more do not speak up loudly against it.

I didn't leave because I was angry; I wasn't angry when I left, I became angry later. I'm Ari Mandel; I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more.

Friday, September 13, 2013


Frei is an art project I participated in, by the artist Maya Ciarrocchi, and I really like how it all came out. Check it out, and if you can you should definitely see the exhibit in person.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Godless, Not Heartless

They call the day before Boot Camp starts "Day Zero". It's before you start training, before the infamous "shark attack", before the ten weeks of nonstop screaming/yelling/push-ups/sit-ups/running, and before the lack of sleeping and eating commences. Day Zero is when you get issued uniforms, sign paperwork till your fingers hurt, get your head shaven (the guys at least) and other mundane calm-before-the-storm tasks.

As we were being herded from one station to the next, one of the NCOs guiding us along asked "so, why'd you guys join the army?". These guys see a new group of fresh-faced freaked-out recruits every day, and I'm sure they ask the same questions at the same spots every time, and no doubt they hear many of the same responses over and over again. I, however, was quite curious to hear what people had to say. From the moment I landed in St. Louis international airport on my way to Fort Leonard Wood MO, to the moment I drove the rented truck out of Fort Bragg NC nearly five years later, I was a cultural anthropologist. I may not have known the word or known of the profession, but from day one I felt like an alien who'd been afforded a rare chance to observe a radically foreign culture.

"I joined to serve my country, sergeant" said one guy, "I joined cuz my pops served, my brother served, and my grandpa served" said another, "the judge told me "go to war or go to jail", so I here I am", and so on down the line. Most of us had at least a few reasons that together made us join, but on top of most of our lists was "serve the country". And it was true. No matter how badly you want to get out of your boring hometown, or how much you want to impress your father, joining the US Army in 2007, at the height of the war in Iraq and with the war in Afghanistan nowhere near over, required a significant amount of patriotism and love of country. Not one of the practical or circumstantial reasons alone would've made any of us join the military, but add those to a deep belief in the cause - and we felt compelled to join. As the saying goes "you provide the why, and I'll provide the how."

I’ve decided to run a marathon for a number of reasons, I've gotten lazy since getting out of the army, I could stand to lose a few pounds, and I've always dreamt of running a marathon. A few family members are teaming up to run and train together (go Team Mandel!!), and sure, I'd love to visit Jerusalem - where I went to yeshiva, and fell in love Jewish history, sociology, and falafel. But none of those reasons alone would get me off the couch and out there pounding the pavement. Raising money for the wonderful organization Chai Lifeline is my number one motivation.

From their website:
"Since 1987, Chai Lifeline's mission has been to restore the light of childhood to children whose innocence ended when life-threatening or lifelong illness was diagnosed.
Through programs that address the emotional, social, and financial needs of seriously ill children, their families, and communities, Chai Lifeline restores normalcy to family life, and better enables families to withstand the crises and challenges of serious pediatric illness."

I've never shnorred - A.K.A. raised money - for anything before, and I don't feel comfortable asking, but I believe in this cause, and I intend to raise far more than the minimum. So whatever your motivation for helping out is - please do so generously. Whether it's supporting Chai Lifeline, supporting me in losing a few pounds, seeing me suffer through hundreds of miles of training, or even if you think this will cause me to do tshuva, stay in Israel and go back to yeshiva. If nothing else, you'll want to donate generously so I don't have to continuously spam you with shnorreratzia. Pay me by the mile, by the pound, you can even pay me to listen to Jewish music as I run. Oh who am I kidding? I’ll be doing that on my own. But you can pay me to listen to your favorite shiur as I run (for $5 a mile), as long as you give early and give often – I’m game. As a smart fellow once said "don't be a cheap Jew, and fork it over like it's maftir Yonah".

‘Team Mandel’ consists of my cousin and veteran Team Lifeline athlete Rabbi Zelig Mandel (“the Rabbi”), my sister Slavy Mandel Dorozhkin (“the Ruskie”) and her husband Ariel Dorozhkin (“the other Ruskie”). Once you have given as much as you possibly can to me, feel free to donate to them as well.


My personal page:

To learn more about Chai Lifeline:

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Spreading the Word

Here are two shows I did, that came out this week. The Rock Center segment annoys me a bit because we had had a great in-depth conversation, but only a few minutes made it on the air. In fact the correspondent told us that we were the most interesting story she'd ever covered. But such is the business of TV...

Be sure to catch the second segment of this important show, featuring Judy Braun, the author of Hush.

The other one is one of the most fun I've ever done. Two friends of mine, Samuel Katz, and Sol Feuerwerker do a great podcast called The After Life. I never miss an episode, and was excited to be invited on. As the scotch flowed, the conversation wandered (in a good way), and if you listen closely you can hear the glasses being returned to the table - we're nothing if not professionals. I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed recording.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Where The Real Action Is Nowadays

Facebook might be the single biggest culprit behind the near death of this and many other blogs. Especially now that I'm in school (NYU!!), I don't have as much time as I'd like to write. Click here though for all the fun frivolity that you may have been missing out on.

It Does Get Besser Indeed

Here's a more in-depth follow up to the original 'It Gets Besser' video. Guess which one I am....

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

An Honorable Mention

I've been quoted here and there in various venues, and some are better than others, but this piece I especially like. It's not an in-depth study of the issue, but it gives outsiders a good glimpse into what we go through just to learn the basics, things everyone in this country takes for granted.
Check it out.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

My Latest Venture

It's late. I know. But better late than never, so be there!

Living After Faith Interview

Here's an interview I did for Living After Faith, a series that I love, and listen to every week. It's not my whole story, but it's a good chunk of it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


My latest article on Unpious.

And my unpolished version:

Monsey isn't exactly known for being the hottest place on earth, but put on a three piece G&G suit, woolen tzitzis, a long sleeve bottom down shirt, and a beaver hat, - and boy oh boy, it gets hot in a hurry! Growing up it didn't really bother me that much, it was what we were all used to. I even went to Yeshiva in Israel, and endured a summer there in the sweltering temperatures, all the while wearing the standard-issue uniform of the Chassidish. Looking back it turned out to be a good thing.
As I stepped out of the St. Louis airport into a heat index I’d never thought possible, I was glad I wasn't wearing that get-up anymore… Until that day, a Chol Hamo’ed trip to Washington DC was the farthest south I’d ever been, and now I was on my way to start Army Boot Camp in Fort Leonard Wood Missouri, in the middle of june.
“GET ON THE BUS!” “HURRY UP!” It’s hot as hell, is all this yelling and running really necessary? This is what the Jews must have felt like when they were rushed out of Egypt, maybe that story about the matzo is true… AC on the bus? Of course not, I should have known that would be too much to ask for…
Once we got there, the first step was a buzz-cut, which I was used to, and wasn't unwelcome thanks to the oppressive heat. But just when we thought we were (slightly) comfortable, it was time to put on our nice new uniforms. Knee-high woolen socks, combat boots, cargo pants, jacket, and hat. As excited as we were to put them on, they instantly added ten degrees, even indoors! Add to that the fact that in Boot Camp everything is an emergency, and you choose not to run everywhere you go at your own peril… The sight and smell of sweated-soaked boots and uniforms became very familiar to all of us.
Lucky for me though, I grew comfortable wearing all those layers much sooner than everyone else around me. While most of my counterparts were used to wearing not much more than shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops, I - on the other hand - had been wearing the full Chassidishe regalia just a short time before. Eventually though we all acclimated, and we grew accustomed to wearing not only our uniforms, but soon added body-armor, helmets, and started carrying a weapon around at all times. I got so sun-tanned that to this day I’m still mistaken for Puerto Rican.
But that was years ago, since then I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing extreme heat - in “full-battle-rattle” - all over the world. Sure we bitch and moan about having to wear all that gear, but given the choice, I wouldn’t want to go to the places we go, and do the things we do, wearing anything less…
January 2010, in the dead of a southern winter, I along with my unit was in the field “playing Army”, when a call came over the radio for me to report to HQ. I rushed over not having any clue what to expect, and the first words out of my commanders mouth were “what languages to you speak Getzel?” The Army pays me extra money for being proficient in Yiddish and Hebrew, and my superiors are aware of this, but obviously weren't clear on the details. “Uh Yiddish, Hebrew, why sir?” “What’s Yiddish?” “Uh it’s kind of like German, with a little Heb - “ “so it’s not French?” “no sir it’s not French” “forget it then”.
At all times there is one unit in the US Army that’s on the presidents speed dial. If anything pops up anywhere in the world, they have to be “boots on the ground” within eighteen hours of the presidents word. Eighteen hours may sound like a lot, but that means from the moment the president issues it, the orders have to pass down the chain of command, down to the lowest private on the list, everyone has to grab all their gear, assemble in a predetermined area, get on a plane, and get “there”, wherever “there” might be… All in under eighteen hours, and this includes holidays, weekends, leave, pass, drunk, or any other excuse you may have. You miss the plane, and you're a deserter, and you don't want to be a deserter…
To my luck, It was my units turn to be on standby, and Haiti had just been hit by the largest earthquake in it’s history, and guess who just dialed 911… We had to pack our stuff and race back to base because we were going to Haiti, and they were desperately trying to identify anyone who spoke French or Creole. (I don’t)
By the time we packed up our junk and drove back to base, there was a gauntlet of shots, pills, crash-courses, and briefings already waiting for us. We were told not to eat or drink anything not provided to us by the Army, expect tropical hot and wet weather, oh and by the way, the HIV rate is 95% so go ahead and take your chances...
When we got on the plane it was snowing and cold, only a few short hours later we landed in Port Au Prince in the middle of the night, but it was near 100 degrees. As soon as the cargo doors opened it was like a blow dryer was suddenly turned on in our faces. And the humidity! We were instantly drenched in sweat. But there was no time to dwell on that, we were instantly put to work. Unloading planes full of food and water, then loading them up onto choppers, and flying around to designated areas and emptying them. We did that for days without stopping. It was by far the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life, but also the most gratifying work. Meanwhile I got so sun-burnt I was pealing skin for weeks, lost a bunch of weight, and got to hang-out and work with Sean Penn. In addition I became the impromptu interpreter between the American and Israeli military and medical teams, and got to meet the Israeli ambassador to Haiti.
All the while we had to stay in our beloved uniforms, fight for access to cold showers (which turned out to be teeming with e-coli), and eat space shuttle food and water only. I “borrowed” some Israeli cookies out of the ambassadors car (stale), had some rice and beans with the Israeli medical team (bland), and tasted some French military rations (not bad), but for the most part we starved.
The one good thing about the desert compared to Haiti is that at least in the desert, as soon as the sun goes down, the temperature goes down with it. Not so in Haiti. It was hot and humid 24/7, and unlike other places we deploy to, Haiti was highly visible. The farther you get from garrison life and big-wigs, the less stringent the uniform standards become. Head-gear and jackets come off, t-shirts come untucked, pants cease to be tucked into boots, and faces go unshaven. But in Haiti we were on display for the world media at all times, plus we were surrounded by high-ranking types everywhere we went. So we had to stay all prim and proper at all times, no matter how uncomfortable we were.
One of the valuable lessons I learned in Haiti (besides that we Americans are unbelievably spoiled) was that humans are incredibly adaptable, we didn't have AC in our truck or tents, we had awful food (and not much of it), and work like slaves at all hours of the day and night. But no one complained, one look at the suffering of the Haitian people, and we felt privileged.
Sure wearing 18th century Polish clothes in 21st century America, is silly, Peltzs, shtreimelach, strukess, and shteevel, and for that matter, head-to-toe dresses, and shpitzels, have all outlived their usefulness, and serve no purpose, much like the buggy-whip. But before you shed a tear for those poor shlubs, remember that just like anything else in life, you get used to it. For the most part, chassidim aren't walking around wishing they could do away with the penguin suits, and just like habits, priestly frocks, cowboy hats, and bell-bottoms, they're all style choices that may be out-dated and goofy, but they don't hurt anyone. And as in the military, the farther away from the “home base” they get, the less careful they tend to be about wearing every article of clothing as prescribed. Go to Miami Beach, or the four corners in South Falsburg on a summer motzei-shabbos, and you’ll see what I’m talking about…
The main reason Chassidim still wear their uniform to this day, isn't very different from why we in the military wear much of what we do. Instant identification. It’s the reason the Marine Corp. patented their cammo pattern, the Army forbids rolling up jacket sleeves, and why the Air Force and Navy have uniforms that wouldn't fool a blind person.  Chassidim can spot each-other a mile away, you could be going 75 MPH on the thruway, and out of the corner of the eye you see a Honda Odessey, filled to the brim with little Chassidles. Once your eyes have grown accustomed to a certain pattern, you become very good at picking them up, so too in the military, we need to be able to instantly identify friend or foe, (the individual military-branch differences is just ego).
So grab your gartel, grab your shirtzel, grab your skinny jeans, and grab your ascot, and lets hug it out, and sweat it out together.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It Gets Besser

For those of you wondering, I'm the last guy in the video.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


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.