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!

 

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

Dear Soul Foodie,

Q. Why does my vegetable soup always come out tasting like dishwater?

A. Because you put in too much dish soap? 🙂 No, just kidding. I haven’t tasted your soup, (nor have I had a sip of dishwater in recent memory,) so I’m going to have to guess that you mean that it comes out too watery and insipid for your taste.1

It’s being watery could stem from a number of issues. Maybe you simply use too much water, or in other words, you don’t put enough ingredients, spices, etc. into the water to make it come out tastier. Remember, water is tasteless, so the only taste your soup is going to have is from the ingredients. That’s a very simple fix.

However, it’s likely the issue is deeper than that. Let’s say you’re following a recipe (my guess is, you likely are) and you’ve added just as much of everything, including water, that the recipe asks for. Yet your soup still comes out ‘tasteless’. What went wrong? It could be you just haven’t cooked it long enough2. Except for some very few quickly water-soluble ingredients (i.e. salt, sugar, tamari, etc.), it takes a certain amount of cooking time to let the ingredients’ flavors infuse the water. Of course, some ingredients take longer to cook and others less. But that really might be the whole problem – just increase the cooking time.

But what if you’ve cooked it as long as the recipe requires and you still have ‘dishwater syndrome’? Then it could be that your stovetop just cooks differently from the one in the recipe kitchen. That is very common. Maybe your flames are weaker/stronger than theirs. Maybe it’s a ‘translation’ problem – what they call ‘medium’ flame, you call ‘medium-high’.3 It could be a lot of things. I think cooking times are just something you just have to be flexible with, within reason. Maybe in baking less so, but in cooking there’s no way around it. So try cooking the soup longer and see if it helps.

Another possible answer is that you’re simply not allowing it to boil down enough. Nearly all soups have to boil down somewhat from their original pot-line to be good. Maybe you pot is covered so tightly that little or no evaporation4, which would lower the water-to-ingredient ratio and make the remaining soup richer, can occur. Or maybe you’re cooking it on so low a flame that even if left uncovered, or partially covered, the pot would hardly evaporate. (Of course, this must be done within reason you don’t want to boil your soup down to nothing, or even burn it. (I’ve done that – I’ve burnt soup to a crisp. Usually when I forgot it was cooking.)

Of course, this is all assuming you’re using a recipe. If not, get one J (just kidding, I’m the last one to push recipe dependence, but that’s another day’s article.) If you’re not using a recipe (bravo!), you really just have to be bolder. More ingredients (learn which ingredients ‘do’ what to a recipe – we’ll get to it), more cooking time – and pray.

The Kabbalah of Cooking

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

  1. At first glance, it seems like the problem here is too high a ratio of Water to Earth.
  2. Insufficient Fire to transfer Earth to Water.
  3. Increase Fire
  4. Increase Air, to allow Fire to displace Water, thus increasing the Earth to Water ratio

US Jewry – Caught in the Middle

I admit it.

I’m worried about American Jewry.

They say that the Pittsburgh shooting was the deadliest targeted attack against Jews in American history.

I pray that record will never be broken. I really do.

But I’m worried.

Why?

Because it’s no secret that there’s a deep and darkening conflict brewing in the United States right now. The battle lines are being drawn.

And the Jews are caught right in the middle.

Or, I should say, they’ve been pushed into the middle. Into an unprotected no-man’s-land, where whichever way they turn – they lose.

How that?

Because the battle’s shaping up between a large block of the right-wing white, Christian majority (let’s call them the ‘Majority Rule-ers’) and the left-wing non-white minorities, feminists, etc., together with the smaller, but influential segment of the majority that’s dedicated to protect them (we’ll call them the ‘Minority Protectors’).

The problem is that neither camp sees the Jews as one of ‘theirs’.

The white, Christian ‘Majority Rule-ers’, are just that. If you’re not them (and the Jews aren’t), you’re fair game, lumped together with all the other outsiders.

While conversely, the ‘Minority Protectors’, ironically lump the Jews together with the white, privileged ‘oppressors’ rather than with the oppressed minorities they are so dedicated to protect.

Thus, the Jew is seen as a minority in the eyes of minority detractors but not in the eyes of minority protectors.

Not a particularly comfortable place to be, should the conflict intensify.

I realize that I’m overgeneralizing and oversimplifying. I’m also not passing judgment on either of the two ‘camps’, although I easily could. Nor am I delving into the spiritual-historical archetypal roots that I perceive in both the conflict and the Jew’s current position. Nor am I offering here any advice.

All I’m doing is telling you I’m worried.

About the Jews.

About you.

Blessing Denied

The young man sat across table from the great Kabbalist who was known for his exceptional piety and unconditional love.

It had taken him a long time to get an appointment to see him. Then again, why shouldn’t there be a line waiting to speak to someone who dispensed – at never any charge – priceless advice and never-fail blessings?

And it was blessings that he’d leave here with a pocketful. For health, children, an ample livelihood, and more – all been dispensed generously with the holy man’s signature sincerity and care.

He knew there were many more petitioners waiting eagerly outside the small, glass-partitioned receiving room, and that it was only right to yield the great man’s precious attention to someone else.

Then he remembered. There was once last blessing to obtain – perhaps the most important of all – before he stood to leave.

“My teacher,” he said to the sage expectantly, “please also bless me with a peaceful, happy marriage with my wife.”

He waited for the nod, smile, and heartfelt pronouncement that had marked all the previous blessings. But they didn’t come.

The Kabbalist sat impassively.

Was something wrong? Maybe he’d overstayed his allotted meeting time?

It would be easiest to just get up and leave. But if he needed any blessing, this was the one.  “I know I’ve asked for a lot, but please, just one final blessing for a good marriage before I go.”

The holy man looked at him through warm eyes and slowly shook his head.

“I can’t,” he said simply.

“But I need this blessing desperately,” the young man pleaded. Things aren’t so good at home. Not good at all…”

The Kabbalist nodded in sincere empathy, but no benevolent utterance followed.

“Why won’t you bless me,” he said in a desperate whisper. “Am I that bad?”

“I didn’t say I won’t,” the wise man countered. “I said I can’t.”

“Can’t? But why not?”

“Because a peaceful married life is a choice. Many things in life, wealth or poverty, strength or weakness, even sickness or health, are heaven-sent situations that are part of a person’s destiny. Things like these, as they are external to a person’s free choice may possibly be influenced by external input, such as blessings.

“However, there is also a separate realm of life’s circumstances, those which result from free choice. These situations depend on our own internal choices whether to behave with ethical, spiritual values in a given situation – or the opposite.  These are things directly between a person and his Maker.

“The peace and happiness of a marriage relationship, or lack thereof, lies within that realm. If you choose to live in peace with your wife, and treat her in a spiritually worthy way that will motivate her to live in peace with you, you will succeed.

“If not,” the Kabbalist sighed, “all the blessings in the world – mine or otherwise – can’t help. A happy marriage comes by choice, not by luck, fate, or blessing.”

The young man slowly left the room. He felt challenged by the sage’s words, yet somehow the idea that he wasn’t bound by fate, and a happy home was his for the choosing made him feel more blessed than any blessing could.

Lech Lecha – A Personal Journey

I can understand Lech Lecha (the Torah portion in which Abraham is told by God to leave his birthplace and family behind, in order to fulfill his spiritual potential and destiny).

I can understand it, because I lived it.

I think every BT has lived it to one degree or another.

One of the reasons I moved to Israel before our oldest daughter was born was that I wanted my kids to have a chance to grow up in an environment where they wouldn’t be confused by regular exposure to people who, on the one hand, loved them (and to whom they were rightly taught to love and respect back), but on the other hand, were modeling and consciously or subconsciously promoting a spiritually poisonous lifestyle and worldview.

How many adults, never mind kids, could successfully navigate that nuance?

I imagine that many would find that decision to be extreme, heartless, or small-minded. Some might contend that I’m fearful; that if I had enough belief and confidence in my chosen lifestyle, I wouldn’t feel the need to flee.

I can hear that side well, and it wasn’t an easy decision to make.  But I think that if someone takes seriously what the Torah claims to be – and especially the lesson of Lech Lecha – there is little choice.

I’ve seen people who didn’t take the Lech Lecha leap. Their kids might have been showered with more love and more material – and perhaps even emotional – support than mine, which are all good things.

But they also paid a price.

I’m sure there are exceptions, but I haven’t seen one yet, where the kids weren’t also at least somewhat infused with the outlooks and values of those loving, yet toxic influences.

It’s not a pleasant choice to make. By all accounts, the saga of the BT and his birth family is a painful one.

In almost all cases today, his family is doing nothing other than continuing to live by the only values they know, the values with which the BT was raised and chose to abandon.

They’re innocent; they can’t be expected to understand – or to change. But an ‘innocent’ wielding a lethal weapon is still dangerous.

I heard that a great Rabbi once said the difference he felt between being in Israel, where he raised his family, and in the US, from where he hailed was: “When I’m there (the US) surrounded by people living by Torah-inimical lifestyles I ask myself ‘what am I doing here?’; whereas when I’m here (in Israel) and in the same situation, I ask myself ‘what are they doing here?’.”

While nowadays wherever Torah-observant kids grow up they’ll be exposed to and have to grapple with elements that clash with and challenge their values, I guess I wanted to raise my kids in a place where they were perched upon the spiritual highlands, the challenge coming at them from below, rather than in a valley, where they’d have to fight an uphill battle.

It’s a choice I affirm – and I’d do it again –  but it’s  certainly not one I exult in.

Cooking Up a Storm

There’s “men’s work” (real or imagined).

There’s “women’s’ work” (ditto).

And then there’s cooking.

What I mean is that I don’t even know where cooking is “supposed” to be filed within this (either intrinsic or culturally imposed – depending on who you ask) set of tasks and occupations.

Growing up in the mid 20th century, it was simple. My mother always cooked and my father never did.

Except, that is, when we grilled. Then Dad magically donned the chef’s cap and Mom hung back with her books and crossword puzzles.

Maybe cooking indoors is women’s work and outdoors is men’s?

The same gender ambiguity plagued the TV chefs of my generation. Julia Child was the undisputed grand dame of the culinary court, yet the dashing Galloping Gourmet was a vocal second on the local small screen. (And even Julia would regale us with her trips to France’s great kitchens to consult with the male doyens who ruled them.)

Maybe turning to the heimishe world would give some clearer insight, as it often does. Frum magazines’ cooking sections are clearly ensconced in the  “ezras nashim.” And looking back, there’s no doubt there that it was our alter-bubbies – and not our alter-zaidies – who were “at home on the range.”

Yet if we look back at their alter-alter-alter zaidies – the Avos – the picture suddenly looks different.

It was Avraham who cooked for his disguised angelic guests (with the help of his son Yishmael), and it was Yaakov who stirred the famous pot of “red lentils” that Esau sold his birthright for.

True, Sarah was baking the bread for the aforementioned angels (maybe cooking is men’s work, baking is women’s?), and Rivka cooked the stew that Yaakov served to Yitzchak for his blessing – but then again, that was only to take the place of the food that Yitzchak had asked his son, Esau, to cook for him.

Confusing – totally.

You could ask: me who cares? And maybe the answer for most is, who does?

But having spent most of my professional life as a cook, it feels important for me to know if I’d merely drifted into my natural male role (if there is one), or had I ungraciously usurped rightful female territory (ditto)?

At home, this issue has been no small conundrum as well.

Maybe cooking simply is and has always been both men’s and women’s work – a truly gender-neutral endeavor (and thus either ahead of its time, or the exception that proves the rule – depending who you ask)?

Maybe as such, cooking is the great unifier, not only between the genders themselves, but amongst those with different outlooks as to what (if anything) gender roles should be?

Maybe cooking is the key to defuse the great kulturkampf engulfing our age!

Or…maybe it’s time for me to stop writing and go make myself something to eat.