Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cookies


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

Footsteps


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.