Sweet Surrender

“Im ayn ani li, mi li?”

If I don’t shine my unique light into the world, who will? No one else can be me.

“U’ki’she’ani l’atzmi”

But if I try to do it on my own ‘independent’ power, as opposed to plugging in to Your infinite power (or I do it for self-serving ends),

“Mi li?”

I’m nothing; I don’t exist as a power, only as a vessel, a unique lens to shine Your light through.

“V’im lo achshav, aymasai?”

That’s why I’m here; a short burst of energy, a minute but crucial part of Your tapestry. This is my one chance. Please help me seize it this moment, and every moment of the life You grant me.

The Charge of the Light Brigade – A Serial Haiku Call to Spiritual Arms

Darkness is a bluff,

Though winter seems forever,

It’s gone in a wink.

A tiny light bulb,

Can light an amphitheater,

So can your light too.

Yoseph is a spark,

Esav is a bale of hay,

Doesn’t stand a chance.

It’s easy to fall,

Victim to the illusion,

It’s a waste of time.

So many of them,

How can we possibly win?

Light knows no number.

In the dark of night,

The only way to triumph,

Is not to give up.

You must remember,

Next time you feel like quitting,

It’s not about odds.

Nature is a lie,

Don’t take it seriously,

Our work’s above it.

Time to train the mind,

To ignore what the eye sees,

And follow the soul.

Do not be afraid,

To take the battle forward,

Miracles will come.

They have the money,

They also have the power,

But we have the light.

Just keep on going,

Let go of mathematics,

Let Him let us win.

It isn’t their fault,

They never understood us,

In the end they will.

Come on Sons of Light!

Don’t give up at the entrance,

You’ve waited this long!

Become the King of Your Home (A Real Man’s Guide to Regal Marriage)

It’s true – the husband is the leader of the home.

It’s also true that there are different types of leaders.

There are wise and beloved kings, such as Dovid HaMelech (King David), Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon), and, hopefully soon, the Mashiach.

There are also despised despots, such as Kim Jong Un, Saddam Hussein, and Stalin.

Both types are rulers. The subjects of both do their ruler’s will with smiles and alacrity.

There is one big difference, though.

The smiles they give the righteous kings are real. They stem from genuine love, respect, and trust.

Despots also get smiles and obedience. But those smiles cover over hatred, ridicule, and despair. 

Because a despot can bully-rule his subjects’ words and actions, but he can’t control their inner feelings and thoughts.

To a thug like Stalin, it didn’t really make a difference. A soulless obeisance was enough to stroke his crude ego.  

But for a Jewish husband, having a wife who truly loves and respects him versus one who doesn’t, even if she may ‘act as if’ while secretly she can’t stand him, should make all the difference in the world.

KING OR DESPOT?

This dichotomy of righteous king – or melech, versus despot – or mosheil, is a familiar one.

On Rosh Hashanah, we are called upon to make Hashem our King. On the surface, it seems absurd. Who are we, as puny human beings, to ‘decide’ whether the Creator and Master of the entire Universe – including us – is or isn’t king? He’s all-powerful; obviously, He’s the King whether or not we say so.

Not so.

True, Hashem is the absolute ruler over all. But until, and unless, we, His subjects, actually desire that He rule over us, Hashem remains our mosheil (dictator) and not our melech (king).

Only once we truly want Him to lead us, when we actually feel it in our hearts and not only mouth the words, do we ‘make’ Hashem the King.

Of course, the question is how do we come to feel it? How do we come to relate to Hashem as our desired, loved, and admired King, instead of merely a despot/dictator that we are ‘forced’ to serve and praise?

The answer to this question of how to ‘make’ Hashem into a King, will also reveal to us how we can make ourselves into truly admired, desired, and loved kings of our own kingdoms – our marriages – and not merely tolerated despots.

THE ULTIMATE HUSBAND

You might be thinking, “This is going too far. Look, I might be a nice guy, but I’m not going to try to compare myself to Hashem.”

Don’t be so sure. The Torah itself makes this comparison. In many places (Shir HaShirim, for example) Hashem is compared to a husband, and Klal Yisroel to His wife. The Torah doesn’t make analogies lightly. If this is the metaphor it has chosen, then it’s one we can learn and extrapolate from. 

The Torah even takes things further. The Midrash tells us that just as a man looks toward Hashem to give him life and provide all of his needs, so does a wife look toward her husband in that same way.

So, yes, in your wife’s eyes, you do have a certain ‘leadership’ quality. But whether she views you scornfully as a powerful despot, or lovingly as a powerful king – is entirely up to you.

WHAT IT TAKES

Therefore, let’s explore what makes the Ultimate King, Hashem, worthy of that title, and at the same time learn how to emulate Him and become true kings of our home.

A major difference between a desired king and an endured despot is trust. Once we trust that Hashem truly cares about us and will provide for our genuine, deeply-felt needs, we begin to desire His leadership.

The classic Jewish ethical work, Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart) lists seven qualities in a being (all of which Hashem possesses) that leads us to trust him (I paraphrase):

1. Kindness (Harachamim, Hachemla, v’ha-ahava – the combination of compassion, sympathy, and love) – We know that he truly wants to treat us well and doesn’t look at it as a ‘bother’.

2. Caring (Sh’aino misaleim – doesn’t shirk) – He doesn’t neglect us. He’s never ‘too busy’ to make our needs a high priority.

3. Power (Chazak, v’loy’nutzach – strong and determined) – We know he’ll exert himself to the fullest for us and won’t ‘jump ship’ when the ‘going gets tough’.

4. Knowledge (Yodea b’afnei toeles – knows our needs) – He understands us well enough to give us what we really need, with no ulterior motives or ‘projections’.

5. Consistency (Misyacheid b’hashgacha – always there for us) He continues to give to us at all times; never ‘turns his back’ on us.

6. Exclusive Responsibility (Masoor b’yado – dedicated and responsible) – He ‘owns’ the responsibility to make sure our needs are met. He won’t ‘pass the buck’ or play the ‘blame game’.  

7. Unconditional Giving (Tachlis ha-nidivos v’ha-chesed l’mish’roi lo u’l’mish’ainoroi lo – gives 100% whether we deserve it or not) – He doesn’t ‘keep score.’ He gives without demanding anything back.

When a person sees and feels that Hashem has all those qualities, it’s only natural for them to trust Him, love Him, and gladly accept him as their King.

When we emulate Klal Yisroel’s ‘husband,’ Hashem, in our roles as husbands in our own marriages, our wives will naturally trust, love, and gladly accept us as her king, too.

That is, once she knows that her husband:

1. Truly wants to treat her well and he doesn’t look at it as a ‘bother.’

2. That he doesn’t neglect her; he’s never ‘too busy’ to make her needs a high priority.

3. That he’ll exert himself to the fullest for her and won’t ‘jump ship’ when the ‘going gets tough.’

4. That he understands her well enough to give her what she really needs, with no ulterior motives or ‘projections.’

5. That he continues to give to her at all times; never ‘turns his back’ on her.

6. That he ‘owns’ the responsibility to make sure her needs are met. He won’t ‘pass the buck’ or play the ‘blame game.’  

7. That he doesn’t ‘keep score.’ He gives without demanding anything back.

A husband like that is royalty in his wife’s eyes, someone she can genuinely love, respect, and accept upon herself as her king.

WHAT WOULD HE DO?

Every marriage, even the best, has their less than perfect moments, when our wives don’t live up to our hopes or expectations. This is when the ‘king’ of the marriage can truly reveal his royalty and earn her deep respect and love, or ch’v’sh fall into the trap of reacting like a despot with all that it entails. 

Again, we take our cue from the ‘Ultimate Husband and King’ of the Jewish People, Hashem, and learn from how He reacts when His ‘wife’ falters. It just takes one look at Hashem’s middos of rachamim as brought in the Chumash (Shemos 34:6-7, see Rashi and Sifsei Chochomim) and in Tanach (Micha 7:18-20, see sefer Tomer Devorah) to see just how patient, loving, and forgiving a kingly husband should be.

SECRETS TO A HAPPY MARRIAGE

As good husbands as we might already be, we know we’re far from perfect. But there was a perfect, prototypical man, made directly by Hashem – Odom (Adam) HaRishon. His marriage to Chava (Eve), the first and archetypal woman, is recorded in the Torah in Parshas Bereishis (Genesis) not merely as history, but to give us a model of what it truly means to be a ‘king’ of a man, the nature of a woman, and the secrets of a sublime, successful marriage.

Let’s look at a number of these secrets – these ‘Bereishis (Genesis) Principles’, as we’ll call them (or BP’s for short) that clearly illustrate the essential characteristics of a man, and how that knowledge can bring him true peace, happiness, and satisfaction in his relationship with his wife.

BP# 1: REIGNING BY REMOTE CONTROL

The key to understanding the mystical foundation of marriage is to realize that a man and his wife, while appearing to be two separate, independent beings, are in essence a unit – two halves of a whole.

This is hinted to in the in the verse that says: “…male and female, He created them.” (Ber. 1, 27)

Rashi cites a Midrash that the first human was originally created as androgynous, being both fully male and female, and at a later stage was separated into two distinct beings of different genders.

Only afterwards did they reunite as man and wife.

This process, a single being divided into two seemingly independent halves and then reuniting, was not merely a one-time phenomenon.

Every married couple is actually one soul divided between two bodies, yet connected at a higher unseen point. That means that a husband is able to influence his wife not only a conscious level, but even subconsciously on a deeper spiritual level, which will then show itself in day-to-day life.

Understanding how this hidden spiritual influence works and accessing its power is a key to a happy and successful marriage. Our second ‘Bereishis Principle’ shows us how…

BP# 2: IT’S ALL IN YOUR HANDS

The real-time hidden soul connection between a man and his wife is hinted to in the passuk: “And Hashem, G-d, said; ‘It is not good for man to be alone; I will make for him an Ezer K’negdo.’” (Ber. 2:18)

The words, ‘Ezer K’negdo’ can be translated as a ‘confronting supporter’.

Rashi, citing a Gemara on the passuk (Yevamos 63a), explains this mysterious term: “If the man is worthy, she will be his supporter; if he’s unworthy, she will confrontationally battle against him.”

Therefore, we see that the way a wife treats her husband is actually a subconscious reaction to and function of his worthiness.

When the Torah refers to worthiness, it obviously means spiritual worthiness. If a man chooses to behave sincerely in a spiritually worthy way as defined by the Torah – behaving as a ‘king’ – his wife will be his pleasant and admiring follower, his ‘supporter.’ Conversely, if he chooses to behave unworthily, as a ‘despot’, she will become confrontational, rebellious, and put him down.

It’s important to note that this dynamic takes effect subconsciously on the spiritual plane. The wife needn’t witness or be consciously aware of her husband’s worthy or unworthy behavior, and she herself is often unaware what’s influencing her to adopt one mood or the other. Therefore, if the husband wants to change the dynamic for the better, he needn’t (nor will it help to) criticize, complain, or retaliate, but rather simply increase his own spiritual worthiness. 

So we see that the tone of the relationship is entirely in the husband’s hands. He truly is its ruler in the deepest spiritual sense. This is tremendously empowering – and it’s also a tremendous responsibility.

But how can we say that this awesome spiritual power/responsibility is really in the husband’s hands? Our third ‘Bereishis Principle’ will make it clear…

BP#3: RULING HER EMOTIONS

After the misdeed with the Tree of Knowledge, Hashem told Chava that from then on: “… to your husband will be your yearning and he will rule you.” (Ber. 3:16)

This concept of ‘ruling’ applies on a deeper level to ruling a wife’s emotions and self-esteem. An essential part of a man’s spiritual worthiness or the opposite is measured by how he treats his wife.

The Torah places supreme priority on interpersonal relations, and the closer the relationship is the greater its spiritual importance. As we see, a husband is his wife’s ‘yearning.’ She subconsciously craves to be beloved and esteemed in his eyes.

If he adopts the spiritually worthy path of treating her that way – a ‘king’ who treats her like a ‘queen’ – she will be happy and content, and therefore respond as a ‘supporter.’ If he fails to do so, but merely acts like a ‘despot’ toward a ‘servant’, his spiritual unworthiness will earn him a disrespectful ‘combatant’ (while she may sometimes be too afraid or polite to show it, she can’t choose not to feel it – it’s a spiritual rule, beyond her bechirah).

Even if how a husband treats his wife determines his spiritual worthiness and the dynamic of his marriage, how can we know how to give her what she needs? ‘Bereishis Principle’ number four tells us how…

BP#4: BEING A REAL MAN

Later in the Torah Portion, we’re told: “And Adom knew Chava his wife, and she conceived and gave birth…” (Ber. 4:1)

The procreation process is based upon a man giving his portion of the potential child to the woman, who in turn receives it. There’s a basic axiom in penimius HaTorah (Inner, mystical Torah teachings) that the physical world and all of its processes reflects a spiritual counterpart.

So if on the physical plane, in man’s defining interaction with his wife, he gives and she receives, this implies that the same dynamic is meant to exist in the higher emotional and spiritual realms.

When a husband focuses on unconditionally giving to his wife – physically, emotionally, and financially –  he’s in line with his male ‘kingly’ spiritual essence and is thus ‘worthy.’ But if he’s focused on what she is or isn’t giving to him on any of these levels, he’s acting as a ‘despot’ and has effectively usurped a female spiritual role, which is unworthy of a man – and certainly of a king.

Maybe it’s a man’s spiritual role to give. But what type of giving does this mean? Our next ‘Bereishis Principle’ gives us the key…

BP#5: KEEPING PRIORITIES STRAIGHT

What is a man’s most important relationship? Where should his primary loyalty lie?

The Torah answers this: “…A man shall leave his father and his mother, and unite with his wife as one…” (Ber. 2:24)

Kibud av v’eim, honoring and being close to one’s parents, is a very big mitzvah. Yet the Torah hints to us that a man’s relationship with his wife takes precedence even to this.

When a man relates to and treats his wife as his queen, the most important person in his life, bar none – even his parents, children, or employer – he gives her an enormous gift, fulfills her subconscious yearning to be cherished by him above all others, and his worthiness grows. If he fails to do this, even if he gives her money or other material things, his spiritual unworthiness will produce its predictable results.

All of this may be great, but what if she messes up? Isn’t it our responsibility to set her straight? Our final, and perhaps most important ‘Bereishis Principle’ gives the answer.

BP#6: DAMAGE CONTROL

There was never a bigger mistake in the history of the world than the one Chava made at the dawn of creation, persuading Adam to eat the forbidden fruit from the Eitz HaDaas. Every pain and sorrow suffered in the world since then was rooted in this humongous cosmic mess-up.

If ever a husband had the right to let his wife have it, it was Odom after this.

The Torah recounts his choice words about her right after G-d had cursed him with a life of hard work and then death. He called her…

“…the mother of all life.” (Ber. 3:20)

He praised her! Although her blunder had caused all death and suffering, including, eventually, their own, he spoke nicely to her and tried to make her feel good!

Nothing a man’s wife could possibly do or say could reach even the toenail of such an error. And there’s nothing that can ever spiritually justify a man criticizing his wife in the least. As we said, they are two halves of one soul and he, the husband is the ‘king’ who can control her feelings and actions without even saying a word. She’s his Ezer K’negdo who mirrors him, rising or falling in her madreiga (spiritual level) and feelings about him according to his spiritual worthiness. So if he wants her to improve, and to truly love and respect him (and not just put on an act) there’s only one surefire, simple way to make it happen.

He should work on himself!

Black Sky Blues

Is it better to lie awake with insomnia,

Or to lie while awake in…somnia?

Sleep is the goal of those afraid to die,

Yet more afraid to live, if it means with open eyes.

But who said sleeping has to be in bed?

One can sleep as a professor, or a corporate head.

Some sleep by drinking, sleep by drugging,

Sleep by eating, sleep by hugging.

Sleep by spending, sleep by earning,

Sleep while praying, sleep while learning.

Sleep walking, talking, teaching, preaching,

Sleep laughing, crying, living, dying.

So let me quake from lack of sleep,

Not snore my life away, and then forever weep.

Explaining Jews to My Non-Jewish Boss

I was a new freshman at Brandeis and had already scrubbed one pot too many.

For my ‘work-study’ job that the school had provided me with as part of my financial aid package, they’d put me in the kitchen – a place where I’d always been comfortable and still am to this day. 

But they’d also put me under the jurisdiction of an uptight supervisor who’d decided for whatever reason that this (then!) muscle-bound eighteen-year-old had no more culinary aptitude than to hand-scrub giant grease-encrusted cauldrons – punctuated by breaks of carting detritus to the dumpster.

I was ready to bite the bullet – I needed the money – but when I found out that my buddy who was in the same program, for the same pay, under the same supervisor, was making sandwiches and serving salads to chatty coeds in the school’s health food café, I made up my mind.

By the next day, I’d landed an off-campus evening job selling electronics for better pay, plus commission, and had smugly told my erstwhile taskmaster she should find herself another slave.

My new boss was a lanky late middle-aged New Englander named Dick. He seemed to take a liking to my initiative, and after a week or two, called me into his office for a chat.

After some small talk and offer of a cup of coffee, which I accepted, and a cigarette, which I didn’t, he looked me in the eye, and said:

“You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”

I nodded. It was a pretty safe guess, as Brandeis was about 70% Jewish at the time.

“I have a lot of respect for the Jewish people,” he went on. “They’re smart and resourceful. But there’s just one thing I don’t understand. Why are they so liberal, when the conservatives are better for business?”

My mind churned as he waited for an answer. My first thought was that he’d asked the wrong guy. Back then I was as apolitical as I was irreligious, and while I’d heard the ‘L’ and ‘C’ words before, I don’t think I could have defined them, and certainly couldn’t pinpoint why Jews specifically might or might not have a predilection for either of the two.

So I just sort of left it with a clumsy “Gee, I don’t know, Dick”, or something like that, vaguely feeling that even if there might have been some insult embedded in the question, it certainly wasn’t insulting enough to go back to the grease cauldrons.

Only years later, as my knowledge of the political spectrum and the religious rainbow expanded, did I start to get it.

I’ve often heard an argument for the absurdity of anti-Semitism that draws on the fact that Jews have been simultaneously persecuted for contradictory reasons – for being both arch-capitalists and communists, etc. 

It’s easy to roll one’s eyes and nod along, but I’m sorry to say the argument is specious. 

Jews are broadminded people. We don’t confine ourselves to one ideological extreme or the other. However, we do tend to wiggle ourselves to the extreme or vanguard of whatever ideology tickles our fancy – so yes, Jews could well have been both the leading capitalists and communists, etc., in one society at the same time.

So, Dick, on that account I could tell you now (if you’re still around) that Jews being both liberal and business minded (or as one pundit put it ‘earning like Episcopalians and voting like Puerto Ricans’) is only a mystery until you realize something else about us.

We are wildly idealistic and we realize that paradoxes only exist to be bridged. 

The roots of these traits lie in the Jew’s spiritual essence. The Jewish mystical mission – why we are here – is to ‘bring heaven down to earth’.

This has two connotations. One is to transform earthly society and its shortcomings into something higher, more enlightened, harmonious, and just.

It’s a wildly idealistic goal, which only wild and powerful idealists could ever hope to achieve.

The second connotation is bridging the paradox of the two ultimate opposites, the pure spirituality of ‘heaven’ with the unadulterated physicality of ‘earth’.

Now both of these endeavors need clearly defined, objective, parameters to avoid careening widely off course.  The kabbalah tells us that this is exactly the purpose of the Torah, when properly understood and applied – the blueprint for our mission to bring heaven down to earth.

It tells us when and where to lean left, when and where to list right, and when to stay the middle course. When the powerful, extreme ‘engine’ of the Jew becomes disconnected from the navigating ‘rudder’ of the Torah, the steward-‘ship’ of our mission can even stray far enough off course as to eventually enter shark-infested waters. But, after all, I’m not here to postulate on the roots of anti-Semitism.

I don’t know if Dick would understand any of this, as to him the battle lines were clearly drawn. But he gave me four years of college spending money, and for that I am grateful, and anyway what’s a little paradox, puzzlement, and (perhaps) profundity, compared to dishpan hands?

Measles, the Baal Teshuva, and Unconventional Wisdom

Recently there was quite a dust up on a frum, online writer’s forum I belong to about the vaccination issue. This has obviously become a hot topic of late with the reported measles outbreaks in various communities in the US and Israel.

As I cursorily followed the heated debate, which I wisely kept my nose out of (while I have an opinion, it isn’t one of my ‘crusade’ issues, nor is it germane to this article, as you’ll see), it occurred to me that something deeper than the matter at hand was likely bubbling below the surface.

Taking a step back from the issue itself, the matter seemed to boil down in an abstract sense as to whether to follow conventional wisdom or resist it.

This dichotomy is a very hot button issue for baalei teshuvah.

A baal teshuvah (as the term is commonly used to denote one from a non-observant background who became frum), by definition only got to where he or she did, by radically bucking the conventional wisdom of the society they grew up in.

Part of this process is swallowing the very bitter pill that his parents, teachers, media and entertainment icons, and peers had all been (perhaps unwittingly) lying to him concerning some of the most fundamental matters of life.

One logical psychic side effect of this process is the rise of a blanket mistrust in the conventional itself – simply because it’s conventional. “After all, if they could lie to me about the meaning of life and my very identity, why shouldn’t they be lying about this too?”

It takes tremendous courage, faith, and just plain stubbornness to existentially turn one’s back on everything and everyone near and dear, often at first based only on vaguely defined, almost intuitional hints and whispers from a soul that until now you had been assured (by your biology professor and others) that you didn’t have.

 Those tools of personality that provided the thrust to rise above convention were hard won – and they die hard.

That’s why, when the BT finally makes it to the world of Torah, where the conventions (i.e. mitzvos, minhagim, etc.) are largely true and real, it is for many a monstrous struggle to suddenly shelve (or even tame) that unconventional part of self that got him there in the first place.

We instinctively bristle at terms like ‘normal’, ‘mainstream’, ‘conventional’, or even ‘conservative’.

In the old world, these were the pacifying pabulums of the status-quo enemy, and now, even when uttered in the name of truth by its unimpeachable purveyors, our antennae involuntarily twitch, and while we may heed their call, it takes a conscious effort to stifle our battle-honed suspicions.

For many, the move from the secular lifestyle to Yiddishkeit can be punctuated with a number of false starts, partial truths, and ill-conceived rebellions.

I know personally, part of the transition process toward my embracing Torah involved a sort of ‘back to nature’ drive, which involved jettisoning the societal credo of the time that newer is better and that scientific precision has supplanted nature’s clumsy copings.

While I still believe there is much truth to the premise that God implanted divine and perfect wisdom into all creations and their processes, I now also believe that He also implanted wisdom within human beings to discover, manipulate, and even synthesize materials and process, not to supplant natural ones, but to complement and enhance them.

In a word, my view has become more nuanced. While I no longer genuflect to ‘conventional’ science, I no longer demonize it either.  They have their ‘hits’ and ‘misses’, their altruists and cads, like everyone else.

And as I said, I’m neither informed nor foolish enough to publicly throw my kerchief into the ring of the ‘vaccination debate’, but I do understand how it stokes a smoldering fire within many of us, and pray that we have the wisdom to always use our fires to enlighten (ourselves and others) and never to burn. 

Put It on My Tab (An Introvert’s Apology)

I heard you made a bris today,

Please put it on my tab.

I know there’s words I’m s’posed to say.

Just put them on my tab.

Next to those I owe you for your son’s wedding,

And your Bar Mitzvahs; two or three?

Kiddushes, shalom zachors, chanukas ha-bayis, sheva brochos,

None of which were attended (…or acknowledged) by me.

You’d probably think it’s pretty dumb,

But I see these things as a zero sum.

And it seems to me that once I’ve missed one,

It’s as if I’ve missed them all.

So when I hear of your next event, I go numb,

And I’m embarrassed to it attention call.

(Why this one and not that one, after all.)

It’s not my fault; I hope you see,

Where I come from the children came one, two, or three.

And certainly with not such frequency,

That the mother of the bride,

Is a mother-to-be.

In my first 26 years, I went to just two weddings.

One broke up right away,

Where the other one was…I refuse to say.

Not one bris (‘cept mine) that I recall,

Shalom Zachors; I never heard of them at all.

Neighbors were people who put up good fences,

Minded their own business; never lived as dense as,

A dozen families to a building, a dozen buildings to a block,

In my suburban childhood, with your neighbors you don’t talk.

(And if one tries to get too friendly, then it’s time to call the cops.)

And though I’ve dwelt for decades in Yiddishe places,

I never got the hang of the Yiddishe paces.

With lifecycle events all publicly noted,

Of their double-digit children ‘til the calendar is bloated.

So I beg you to forgive me if I don’t acknowledge or attend,

Believe me, it’s not because I don’t want to be your friend.

But when I start to get the feeling that your simchas never end, [And may they not!]

I’m thrown into overwhelm and my borders I defend.

So in not noting your good tiding, I don’t mean to offend,

Please, just put it on my tab.

Miracle Wine

“Something’s wrong with the grape juice,” my daughter told me. This wasn’t great news, as I’d just bought a couple of cases of it so I’d have it for the upcoming holidays and beyond.

“I think it’s spoiled,” she went on. “I put some with water in the baby’s bottle and when she wouldn’t drink it, I smelled it.” She scrunched her face. “It also looks funny,” she added, gingerly handing me the bottle.

It did look funny. Instead of the un-labeled semi-artisanal juice’s usual amber hue, it was dark purple, almost black.

“D’you think she’ll be okay?” she asked me in an edgy voice, as she stroked her toddler’s cheek. “I think she had a sip or two.”

Well, being a good father and grandfather, and feeling sort of responsible, I untwisted the bottle’s screw-on cap and took a whiff. “Maybe it went off,” I said. “Let me taste it.”

“You sure you want to?”

I laughed. “I have an iron stomach, no worries.” As an on-and-off professional chef and caterer, I’d long learned to take ‘use by’ dates as suggestions, and instead let my nose and daring taste buds determine if something was or wasn’t fit for human consumption (if only, my consumption,so not to waste still-perfectly-good…whatever it once was.) 

I poured myself two fingers of the deep purple potion, noting that it wasn’t cloudy like grape-juice-gone-bad tends to be.

I took a tenuous sip, then another. It was wine.

Dry wine.

Very good dry wine.

In an un-labeled, screw-top, grape juice bottle.

By now my son had joined the fray. He was an invested party, as he’d picked out and schlepped the carton home from amongst the mountain of grape juice cartons at the semi-private pre-Succos bulk sale.

“Are both boxes bad?” he asked with a frown, ripping open the companion carton and digging out an amber-filled bottle with a sigh of relief.

“Thanks,” my daughter said to him as she uncapped the bottle he handed her and wet the waiting toddler’s whistle. “I hope she didn’t get drunk from the other one,” she added with mock concern.

“Sorry about the grape juice,” my son told me, as he inspected the first carton and saw they’d all gone dark.

“Don’t be sorry,” I said. “It’s dry wine. Actually really good and smooth. I’m happy to drink it.”

“Can’t be, Ta,” he insisted. “I know this company. They only use those bottles for grape juice, and also it was in a grape juice carton.”

“Taste,” I said, handing him a glass.

He demurred. “You know I don’t like wine; some sweet wine for the Seder maybe and that’s it.”

“Taste it.”

He shrugged and wet his lips. “You’re right. It’s dry wine. But it can’t be.”

“It can’t be, but it is,” I countered with a grin. Suddenly it occurred to me that I hadn’t technically bought this wine; I’d bought grape juice and wasn’t ethically allowed to use the wine unless I got permission.

“Call the company,” I asked my son.

“No problem. I’ll tell them the juice is spoiled and get them to take it back.”

“No! To ask if we can keep it. Explain to them the story, and please try to reach them soon, so I can use it for the holidays.”

A day or so later, my son got back to me.

“Well?” I asked.

“I kept speaking to people until they put me on with the owner.”

“And?”

“He said it’s impossible, just like I did. They never put wine – especially not dry wine – in those bottles. Only ones with corks.”

“Did he say I could use it?”

“Sure. I think he was just happy you didn’t want your money back.”

So I’d have plenty of wine for Succos. I wondered if it would help?  Succos and I had had an uneasy relationship for many years. The high key holiday with its loud nightly public  gatherings and the general ‘open house’ attitude that left for precious little of the solitude that recharged my soul, made the ‘Holiday of Happiness’, a challenge.

I was well aware of the Talmud’s prescription of drinking wine for holiday joy and had tried it in past years, but it hadn’t worked out. If I drank enough to be able to feel it, within moments I’d just get hazy and tired. Then, if I’d nap, or go to sleep I’d inevitably wake up dehydrated, with a hangover headache. So, no answer there.

Succos arrived and I found himself at the head of a packed holiday table. Kids were clamoring, invited neighbors were nattering, and everyone seemed to be having fun…except me. I eyed the screw-capped wine bottle in front of me. What did I have to lose?

I poured a cup and drank. It went down smooth; not a hint of that acidic backlash that any of the bottles I’m able to afford leave in their wake.

So far, so good. So I drank another. Now I felt it. But I didn’t feel tired, I felt relaxed, energized, and…happy.

The guests eventually left, several specifically commenting how much they’d enjoyed my company. That didn’t usually happen.

I lay down to nap on my Succah couch. I knew that when I woke up, I’d pay the hangover price for my indulgence – I only hoped it wouldn’t be too high. Two hours later, I sat up, no, nearly sprung up. My head was clear, I felt full of energy.  I couldn’t remember the last time a post-meal nap (wine or no wine) had done that for me. It seemed that this ‘miracle wine’ left no after effects at all!

It was a different Succos. In the past the outdoor distractions and discomforts made it hard for me to concentrate on Torah study. This year, sweet deep Torah thoughts lifted my soul, for hours, not minutes, fueled by occasional sips of miracle wine.

The holiday departed, and with it the now empty ‘juice’carton (no I didn’t drink it all myself, I shared the wealth with guests – including some ‘non-wine drinkers’ who loved it.)

I look back at it as a kiss from God. He knew how much Iwanted to enjoy the season that He’d set aside for happiness and sent me a carton of miracles to make that happen.

Getting Real

One of the problems with a ‘counterculture’ is that it has no life of its own. Its definition depends on there being a ‘culture’ (to counter), without which, it would lose its raison d’etre.

It seems that much frum periodical writing today is either that of the ‘culture’, the party line, a vanilla-wash picture of reality, or the ‘counterculture’, which seem to draw perverse pleasure in snidely and gleefully puncturing said culture’s pristine pose.

Both are equally formulaic, and equally boring.

So what does all this have to do with us as readers and writers?

Nothing and everything.

Many ba’alei teshuva fought inertia, spiritual gravity, and all that was near and dear, to drag ourselves by our elbows across vast existential tundras, jungles, and ice floes, all in a dogged and desperate pursuit to discover who we really were. (Okay, I do tend to hyperbolize, but if anything, on a soul level I’m understating.)

We got here to ‘Frum-Land’ (as in Candy-Land) thinking we’d reached our goal, when all we had actually reached was the starting gate. (Which is not a small accomplishment, BTW.)

We were greeted with compassion and suspicion, pity and puzzlement, fawning and yawning. And then there were the few who understood. Who unconditionally accepted us without wavering one iota from who they were. They didn’t judge and they didn’t budge.

Because they were real. They weren’t ‘culture’, they weren’t ‘counterculture’ – they were real.

I think any longtime BT who ‘made the cut’ and saw it through for two or three generations had to have basked in the glow of at least one of these ‘reality-stars’ along the way.

And I think it is from these living (or perhaps no longer living) exemplars that we as writers – and Jews – should draw our inspiration and take our cues to reach our own post-culture, post-counterculture personas.

This isn’t as hard as it sounds – because we’ve done it before.

Many BT’s transcended the secular culture/counterculture duality to get here (often having to pass in and out of both). For neither modern secular culture, nor its counterculture has the slightest understanding of, or feels the slightest affinity toward, we men in fedoras (never mind fur doughnuts) and ladies in snoods. (Any folk on either side of the aisle who adorn their heads otherwise, please don’t take offense – I was only making a point.)

So perhaps, we BT’s and our earnest fellow travellers, can replicate that feat in this world, too.

We needn’t be swept up in the sword dance of ‘conformity and the conformity of non-conformity’, but rather simply be (and write)…real.

The Torah is the Torah, and there are some things that we just can’t say. But there’s so much more that we don’t say – that we could.

It may not fit in the box of either side of the (above-mentioned) boxing ring

It may not make us culture (or counterculture) stars.

But will it will be real.

As it will come from the heart, it will touch other hearts and may just set off a chain reaction of ‘realness’ that will let everyone breathe easier.

We’ll be able to convey the beauty of the ‘culture’s’ message without being stifled by its FPC (Frum Politically Correct) restrictions. We’ll be able to impart the corrective lessons of the ‘counterculture’ without adopting its bite or cynicism.

It may all sound frightening, but there’s nothing to fear. Because by letting ourselves be real – I mean really real – we will only become people more dedicated to Hashem and His Torah.

Because that is who we really are.

ASK THE (KABBALISTIC) COOK – Practical Cooking Advice for Body and Soul (#2)

Dear Soul Foodie,

Q. I hate peeling hardboiled eggs. Is there any way to get the shells off easily without them breaking into small pieces and sticking to the egg?

A. I can surely relate to the question. Sometimes it just seems to be hit or miss. I was once working in a big yeshiva kitchen (1000+ portions) and it was occasionally my lot to peel a huge pot of eggs. I’d call it ‘gan eden’ (heaven) or ‘gehinnom’ (purgatory) (both l’havdil), as sometimes the shells would just slide off like ‘separating a hair from milk’, and other times it was like pulling a ‘thorny branch out of a ball of yarn’. 1

I’d heard that submerging/dousing the eggs with cold water made them easier to peel. Apparently, it somehow bonds the membrane to the shell instead of the egg2 – which is the essence of the issue. It often helped, but it seemed nearly as often not to.

Then I discovered, by accident, a really effective technique. Pour the hot water off from the eggs as soon as they’re done cooking, leaving just the eggs inside the pot to cool.3 Then once they have, the shells almost always slide right off. Of course, this is only practical if you don’t need the eggs right way. If you do, try an ice water douse and pray for the best.

I once avoided the whole issue, when, after a very frustrating string of recalcitrant shellings, I just cracked (and checked) the eggs a few at a time –careful not to break the yolks –  into plastic freezer bags, tied them tight and boiled the bags of pre-shelled eggs. (Yes, I got some strange looks from interlopers at the institution I was cooking for at the time, but it was worth it.)

They came out looking like amorphous egg whites-and-yolks blobs (yummy!), and they obviously couldn’t be served as is, but for grinding into egg salad, they were perfect. Plus, guaranteed no bloodspots.

I saw they recently came out with pre-cooked and shelled hardboiled eggs in the US. At first I self-righteously guffawed at the indolence of my brethren in the diaspora.

Then I thought about it. Pre-shelled eggs4 means no ‘shell shock’ as you try to get at them. Where do I sign up?

Yours in (hopefully) good taste,

                                                                                 Soul Foodie                                                                           

Kabbalistic Pantry Notes (to be ingested with a ‘grain of salt’)

(See my posts ‘Kabbalistic Cooking’ pt. 1 and 2, which explain references to the ‘Four Cosmic Elements’ cooking technique.)

  1. This is actually the analogy used to describe the range of experiences of the soul separating from the body at death. (As the body is sort of a ‘shell’ for the soul, this is an apt comparison.) If we live our lives knowing our soul is not bound to the body and its agendas, when it’s time for the two to separate it will go easier than if we subjugate (i.e. enmesh) our souls to the body’s fiats.
  2. Interesting. The membrane within the shell, which can bond to either the egg or the shell, seems to hint to the ‘klipat noga’, the diaphanous klipa (or shell) that has some association with both the other, thicker shells and with the spiritual light (the wanted portion, which in our metaphor would be the egg). A successful peeling is when this klipa bonds to the thicker shell and leaves with it instead of sticking to the egg and drawing segments of the thicker shell to remain attached, too.
  3. Just as cooling off the eggs allows the shells to be more easily removed, so too when we distance ourselves from the ‘heat’ of (unholy) passions, the klipot cling less tightly and can be removed.
  4. In the future, spiritually rectified era, the klipot will meet their end, and we’ll all come into the world ‘pre-peeled’. Can’t wait!