Sunday, January 26, 2014
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.
Saturday, December 28, 2013
#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
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.
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
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
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
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?
Friday, September 13, 2013
Monday, July 15, 2013
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.
GODLESS, NOT HEARTLESS!
My personal page:
To learn more about Chai Lifeline:
Saturday, June 22, 2013
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.
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Saturday, February 16, 2013
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Check it out.
Saturday, May 19, 2012
Monday, February 27, 2012
Monday, February 6, 2012
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
And my unpolished version:
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...
Sunday, July 10, 2011
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.
Thursday, June 2, 2011
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…
Saturday, December 18, 2010
"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..?