Friday, January 30, 2009

A Helping Hand

Few defining features of Hasidim are noble. In general, the Hasidic culture is regressive, change resistant, and reluctant to acknowledge shortcomings or demonstrate a willingness to improve for the better. But every rule has its exceptions, and this rule is no exception.

Perhaps the most wonderful characteristic of Hasidim is their generosity, kindness, and readiness to help their brethren in need. Hasidic centers swarm with volunteer organizations that provide relief, support, or general services to the community. There is a widespread trend among Hasidim to establish all sorts of charitable non-profits that you could or couldn’t dream of, whether L’Ilui Nishmas*, as a deal brokered with God, or just to make a difference. All common charities have long been founded, so amateurs have to be creative to come up with ingenious ways to help out.

One may argue the kindness is faith based and is therefore inferior to kindness motivated by a humanistic desire to help. One may argue that the same religion that commanded to love coreligionists commanded to hate infidels. But to the beneficiary it changes nothing. All that matters is that assistance reaches the needy.

All of the above is true within their habitat. Away from home base, Hasidim will go farther than the extra mile to extend a helping hand to a fellow Hasid. The natural instinct to back a townsman coupled with the sentiment for the two of them of not fitting in with the environment will bring them close together and each will protect the other.

I was once with a patient at Hackensack University Medical Center in Northern New Jersey. Although Hasidim frequent the hospital, it is not as inundated with frum people as are the NYC facilities. As I walked to fetch some items from my car parked on the fifth level of the garage, I must have looked helpless, because I was accosted twice by frum people who offered their assistance. To the one who wasn’t wearing a lab coat I replied, “How can I help you? The bathrooms are right there.” Okay. I didn’t actually say that, but that’s because I resisted a strong temptation.

HF lost all trust in Hasidic people, because some of them are registered sex offenders.

Sure thing parents shouldn’t teach their children to blindly trust a bearded face, but there is also no good reason not to trust them at all. Sure thing some frum people are perverts, dangerous, and will be more of a hindrance than help, but that’s no good reason to turn down every help offers.

Every tree has good apples and bad apples, and every ethnic group has good people and bad people. A Hasidic should count on his her fellow no less than an African can count on his bro from the hood.


L’Ilui Nishmas, henceforth LN: Literally, for the ascent of the soul.

In Cabbalistic teachings, a soul can posthumously reap dividends from the ripple effects of its good deeds on Earth. Moreover, living people who wish to do a favor for a soul can transfer credits from their mitzvah bank to the bank of the deceased. As it scores more points, the status of the soul is re-evaluated and it is assigned to a higher place in Heaven.

The process is similar to ordering flowers for a loved one. You give the florist the address, and the bouquet is delivered to its destination. So is it with LN. You pronounce the name of soul and its fathers name immediately prior to doing the mitzvah, and the scanning angels will route the package to the right department and credit the account accordingly.

Soul boosters can be anything from donating a building to serving refreshments in shul. Needless to say, the thrust effect varies greatly and is directly related to the magnitude of the action performed. While donating a building catapults a soul twenty levels at once, a l’chaim can’t do a lot more than a little inching.

The LN thing is so deeply entrenched, that anything not done LN is looked upon as odd. I once brought some used books to the synagogue library. The librarian asked me, “What should put as the LN?” “Your recently passed grandfather or the late Rebbe?”

“No”, I said. “Just deposit it in my own account.”

“What do you mean?” he asked. “No LN?”

“Are you aware that your assets will be frozen until after your death?”

Yeah, I know. And it wouldn’t accumulate any interest either. (The Torah prohibits usury.)

Actually it makes better economic sense to do for our ancestors rather than ourselves. It’s like a pyramid formation. If it’s everybody for their selves, they only get one person’s worth of LN, whereas if each does for his or her predecessors, each gets many times more. Say one good Hasid has twelve children and each has twelve of its own, Grandpa gets LN*144. That’s a lot more bandwidth! It works like the social security system. The working generation pays for the retiring generation.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Last night, I slept. When I sleep, I usually dream.
In my dream, I visited the Skulener Rebbe in private.
I must have complained about evil inclinations and heretic thoughts, because we had the following conversation:

Rebbe: Do you watch movies?
Me: Yes
Rebbe: For how long?
Me: For a long time now. From year 5764 (2004, in Gregorian)
Rebbe (Shocked) Really?
Me: (Calm) Really
Rebbe: Movies are the cause of your troubles.
Rebbe: (Digresses) What do you do?
Me: I write poems. (Why would I say that? I’m only a novice.)
Rebbe: Here, (hands me a pen and a blank sheet of kvitel paper), write me a poem.
Me: But I write in English only; the Rebbe wouldn’t read.
Rebbe: Then write in Yiddish.
Me: I never did before.
Rebbe: Nevertheless.

The Gabai (aide) ushered me to a corner. I sat down at a school-like desk (no red apple, though) and immediately began writing in Hebrew. (Strange; the Rebbe instructed me to write in Yiddish.)

תותקן נשמה
בגוף טמא
מהרהורים סטים
מצפיית סרטים

Let it be mended the soul
Residing in tainted body
From stray thoughts
From movie watching

I was about to compose the second quatrain when suddenly I woke up.
Instead of Modeh Ani, my lips murmured the words I just wrote.
I then realized that neshomeh and tomeh rhyme only by the unscrupulous Ashkenazi pronunciation.
As I brushed my teeth, I burst out in laughter spattering toothpaste all over the vanity mirror. If I’ll ever do the sacrament of reconciliation about my internal struggles on faith, a Hasidic rabbi will not occupy the other side of the confessional.
Besides, the Rebbe was dead wrong. Movies had zero negative influence on my steadfastness.
So what was the catalyst?
The internet, stupid
After all, the Rebbe was right.
As they always were—in Hasidic tales.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I wrote this post about a month ago, but decided not to post at the time. I stored it at a corner in one of the warehouses of the Frum Factory. Tonight, I was in the mood of posting, so this rant was dusted off, adapted to reflect current events, and posted.

The history of the United States is speckled with paradox. Most notorious is the conflict within the man who composed the inspirational verse that all men are created equal, yet was a slave master himself. As Dr. King pointed out, after four score and seven years, plus five score later the Negro still was not free.

I always found the Puritan way of life to be bitterly ironic and psychologically perplexing. How could victims of harassment at home introduce it to the New World? How could heroes who endured persecution on their own hide by the establishment create the institutions that would inflict the very same persecution on others? How could brave men infused with the spirit of freethinking and the valor to defend their beliefs against a tyrant succumb to the temptations of repression and intolerance?

Perhaps years of shuffling in exile bowing heads to others drove them to establish a colony where they, and they only, make the rules? Perhaps the whiff of ownership intoxicated the pilgrims whose perceptions were accustomed to a sense of not belonging? Perhaps in order to protect their faith from unfavorable laws they enacted such laws against the Quakers in a subconscious defense mechanism? The Puritans were a moral failure. They failed to weed their hearts of bigotry and hatred, but instead turned the hate against anything non-Anglican.

Orthodox Judaism in general and Hassidic culture in particular is repressive. Freethinking is overtly discouraged. The Talmud catalogs certain philosophical fields as thought-restricted. Not too long ago, my Hassidic sect was shrouded in inquisitorial terror. People accused of inconformity with the spiritual leadership were excommunicated, physically assaulted, and their property damaged. Hassidim are not allowed to say what they think, for they are not supposed to think that way in the first place.

None of this is new or different to a seasoned blog reader, but how disappointing is it when refugees of oppression share the same outlook with their oppressors.

Haven, Not Heaven is a blog for former religious Jews—strictly. Its implied mission statement is to provide a haven to OTDs for philosophical discussion, leisure chat, and inspirational support free from the nagging remarks and challenging arguments presented by soul-saving commenters. The Havemen make it clear they are not trying to avoid debate. Many Havemen hold public blogs open for theological discussion. But Not Heaven is precisely that: Heaven; a utopia where everything is agreeable, friendly, and pleasant.

The disturbing thing about HNH is its criteria of admission. Applicants must declare their disaffiliation to God, Torah, and observing Jews. But Associate status is not guaranteed with the oath of admission alone. Hopefuls still have to prove their OTDness. They may have to check in on the Sabbath or submit an essay that manifests high levels of heresy. Even when admission is granted, poor heretic has yet to reach the Promised Land. Imagine the horror with which Havemen of low caste have to cope. They must constantly guard their language lest their words are misconstrued as pro-God and they will be kicked from the Haven.

McCarthyism, anyone? The Salem witch hunts? Torquemada?

Torquemada! That’s a home run.

When summonsed before the Inquisition, the accused was asked to enumerate all known enemies. If a name given matched with a name on the witness list, the inquisitor had to discredit the testimony given by that witness. This was the sole opportunity of defense for the accused. HNH detectives apply the same methods of interrogation. First impression is all that matters. No indictment; No cross examinations; no due process.

One might wonder why they are so defensive. Granted a person is not as atheistic as the rest. Granted he or she is not as God hating, as religion bashing; just a semi-heretic. Why the rejection? Why resort to the tactics of the Hassidic fear-mongers? Is it the same warped psychology that has driven the Puritans nuts? Are these actions fueled by retaliatory feelings? This is our place; here we will give the frummies what they deserve.

No. This place is different. This place is held to a higher standard. This place is where freedom of speech is cherished. Don’t defeat the purpose. I have a dream that one day HNH will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: A safe place. I have a dream that one day bloggers will not be judged by their beliefs but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

By executive order, President Obama has shown that we cannot defend the values of liberty by not living out to those values. Let the Havemen show that freedom of expression cannot be gained by stifling it.

Don’t turn your haven into a hive and your non-heaven into burning hell.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cab Crap

The only gentile on our block is the mailman.
(maalos, a Yiddish periodical.)

As a kid or teen I was cautioned by my Hassidic mentors not to engage in any conversation with non-frum people.”Eve conversed with the Serpent and sinned”, they would misquote the Talmudic inferred lesson from the Torah against theological discussions with a heathen. Not that my skills in English or any other language would allow for a fluent dialog with a non-Yiddish speaking partner, but it did serve to build up an imaginable barrier to buttress the physical limits that confined my Hassidic ghetto.

However, theoretical perfection is never achieved in real life scenarios. Hassidic teens do come in contact with outsiders—occasionally; it is an unfortunate reality that comes along with being in exile. All is not lost, though. A good dose of adult supervision is administered—whenever possible. But it’s not always possible. A taxi ride with a gentile driver is off limits.

Picture this: an innocent boy or girl goes by his or herself to the orthodontist for a braces cleaning. En route, the gentile cab driver talks to the kid and drops the wrong word that would stain the child’s soul forever. How can we allow this to happen? Don’t we know that all the dogma we imbued in our children from the moment they started babbling are so precarious that one word can blow it all? We must act to rid our holy ghettos from those outsider cabdrivers.

The problem with unregulated taxi service is not new to Monroe; the Times Herald Record had a story about it a while back. But the issue was raised again by Hassidic community leaders in KJ.

Below is a news story that appeared in the most recent issue of HaKirya (The Village). The story in the local village paper tells us about a proposed village law that would crack down on gypsy cabs in Kiryas Joel. (It appeared originally in Yiddish [here and here]; translation by yours truly.) The dramatic tone is typical of any Hassidic Yiddish paper and especially of one established more for propaganda purposes than out of a genuine desire to inform the public.

I fully understand the dangers of unregulated taxi service. Under-insured against passenger injuries, drunken drivers, kidnappings, rape, and unfair competition are some of the troubles. But what seems to bother KJ leaders most, is unsupervised contact with outsiders; the so-called spiritual damages.

If all they want is crack down on pirate cabs, let them pass a law that will grant police the authority to pull-over suspected vehicles. Why make all those fancy codes and hotlines? Can’t they just enforce existing state laws on Class E license and livery plates? Why create a new department to oversee another registration process? Is it because they want to exercise full control over all cabdrivers, legal and illegal? Is it because they want a pretext to oust all outsiders?

Contrary to what they claim, the proposed law will hurt Hassidic taxi drivers. They will have to deal with another bureaucracy and pay new fees. Not to mention that some Hassidic drivers are not insured either. Hush; let me not talk about that. Or maybe I shall? Village officials will anyway turn a blind eye when it comes to their people.

KJ Mulls Strict Taxi Laws to Battle Harmful Drivers

In these days, plans are being discussed to draft a new local village taxi law to bring an end to increasing troubles that come along with outsider dangerous cab service in Kiryas Joel.

As reported before and as is well known, several non-Jewish taxi firms infiltrated KJ in the past years. Because their fees were somewhat less than what the heimish taxi companies charge, they succeeded in getting a market share among KJ residents.

Unfortunately, the lower prices cost KJ residents a big price. The taxi firms introduced immoral drivers who caused inconvenience and untold sorrow both bodily and spiritually.

Some drivers are here illegally and don’t even have a valid driver’s license. Some don’t have their vehicles properly registered, and nobody can track them down if they commit a crime, God forbid.

The Village Public Safety was involved in a number of incidents concerning these individuals, and it became evident that some of them have a horribly criminal record. Their presence in the village puts all residents in danger both bodily and spiritually.

The cry of the heartbroken families was heard by village officials, begging them to take drastic measures to come up with a solution to the heaven-reaching problem.

In light of this, the village management convened to discuss plans on how to bring about an end to the growing problem in a legal manner, which will force these individuals to get the hell out of here.

After lengthy deliberations in the presence of competent attorneys, several alternative drafts are currently being refined into laws that will reduce the influx of unfavorable taxicabs and curb their ability to spread and saw further damages, God forbid.

Some the plans considered include: A special village permit and medallion that every driver will have to obtain in order to drive a taxi in village of KJ. To get the medallion, the vehicle will have to be registered with the village and drivers undergo a criminal background check to ensure they don’t have a criminal record.

Another plan submitted is that every taxi vehicle should be painted with an indentifying code number along with a telephone number. This will enable residents to make note of the code number and call in with complaints about the driver, and the Village Public Safety officers will address the issue.

According to current plans, registration will have to be renewed annually, which will allow officials to review whether there were any problems with that driver. Thus, it is our hopes that, God willing, the aforementioned troubles will be eliminated as far as possible.

Quite understandable, the law will benefit the five heimish and responsible taxi firms operating in KJ, which provide respectable jobs to tens of Hassidic men. The law will strengthen the ability of KJ residents to further patronize their own brethren.

Presently, village officials are working on the details of the law and how the Public Safety will enforce it. The new law will, God willing, go into effect shortly for the benefit of the general public.

God will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ordinary Day

Another ordinary day I had
Nothing special to add
Neither happy nor sad
But then I noticed everybody was glad

Glad the Constitution is alive
Glad discrimination is dead
Glad to arrive
Glad to be in Texas instead

Glad to be huddled in the eye of the storm
Glad to watch from the news feed
Glad international relations will warm
Glad America will once more lead

Where I go I see a happy throng
Why can’t I be swept along?
Is something in me wrong?
Or maybe I just don’t belong?

An ordinary day

Thursday, January 8, 2009


I originally posted this poem as a comment to The System, but then I thought it merits a post of its own. It mirrors my story and how I reflected on it after reading HF’s rant and call for action.

It starts by telling how I resent being born into the caste I did. It makes the simile to a captured tiger whose feelings progress form rage to self-pity and finally to ultimate gloom.

Next, I tell how I was confined to a prison within a prison. I bemoan my arranged and early marriage and that I wasn’t given the opportunity to conduct an earnest search for my soul mate. I make the simile to a parrot envious of humans who find meaning in what they talk and don’t just mimic. Similarly, I’m sad that our union is merely staged and lacking a passionate bond.

Finally, I express my belief that I’m too entrenched to change. I’ll probably remain where I don’t belong for the rest of my life. But I want my children to be happy, so I will not indoctrinate them with any dogma or deny them freedom of exploration. If they will decide to remain Hassidic, then so be it. If they decide to leave, I’ll support them. However, I’ll have to feign being heartbroken by their rebellion. I make the simile to a salve too old for escape, but who will gladly buy his children a ticket to the Underground Railroad.

I’m trapped like a tiger in cage
Filled with rage
With pity, with gloom
Who confined me here
And why

From the moment I walked earth
From the moment of birth
From the moment conceived in womb
Why to this family appear
I cry

I’m trapped like a parrot in pen
I stare at all the men
Who chose themselves a mate
Why my basic right
They denied

Why haven’t I fled
But listened to them instead
You’re nineteen, you’re late
Why have I accepted without fight
My bride

I’m trapped like an old slave
I’ll not leave but for my grave
I want a better life for you, child
Be different, be smart
My boy

One day in years, years ahead
Gossipers will whisper you’ve fled
You listened to the call of the wild
I’ll mourn after you with a heart
Full of joy

Monday, January 5, 2009


I once thought levels of observance in Judaism were clearly marked. I envisioned observance as a tiered platform with all performers conscious on what step they are standing. If the tiered platform analogy is accurate, then players look down and take note only of the steps below them, oblivious to the many rows above their heads.

I’ve listened to people with a modern background claiming online their family was as frum as it gets. I assume they heard about black-hats before, but can’t think in that direction. Relative to their neighbors, classmates, or congregants, they were saints, and that’s all that matters. The ultras are just that: ultras; out of the equation.

The same is true within the many layers of Chreidim. The yeshiva guy thinks he reached heaven because he grows a beard and his wife wears the most rumpled wig in town. He is blissfully unaware that somewhere a sanctimonious coreligionist removes the wine off the table during Kiddush because the label contains Latin lettering.

Ego-centricism is at play here. The people below don’t have a sense of what it really means to be frum, and the people above take it to an extreme. This credo is held even by sliver splinter groups.

Oh, falsehood comes in so many flavors, but the cherished truth is only one. And only a handful of people know it, most of whom happen to be born into it.