Tales from the Oven


The setup
For a few months our oven hadn’t been behaving nicely. There were issues with the gas flow, temperature regulation, even the flame for the oven would frequently just go out for the heck of it. Aside from the faint smell of natural gas it made cooking anything into a very stressful and drawn out event. Even roasted chicken or pizza seemed to take forever.

The story
When it came to making Shabbos and Yom Tov meals it was a nightmare. Talk about your “overnight” potato kugel! Things cooked and baked slower than molasses in January. Once Friday I had to abandon cooking chicken in the oven and throw it in the grill outside minutes before candle lighting. It would take forever, but my wife always ended up cranking out awesome stuff from the oven. She takes special pride in working hard to make challah every week. She puts her soul into it and you can taste it. It is amazing. Even with our unpredictable oven she would work tirelessly to bake challah. Once in a blue moon the oven temp would be too low or too high and my wife would end up making another batch just to get it perfect. She knows that we all love her challah. It devastates her when it doesn’t come out right.

We got a new oven a week before Rosh Hashanah and it turned on, kept its temperature, didn’t smell of gas or turn off randomly. As I mentioned, her challah is awesome and when we did tasted it the first time from the new oven it was three cheers for mommy. Unanimously everyone liked it. The kid that hates crumbs liked it. The kid that doesn’t eat the crust actually ate the crust. The kid that is particular about their piece didn’t complain about it. I was floored. Not because of just how gevaldik it was, but because I realized how important a normal oven really is. It changed everything. It made great challah into something that was on a higher level.

The lesson
My thoughts that night turned from the positive results of a great oven to the importance of providing a nurturing environment for my family. This isn’t my strongpoint, to say the least. I try, succeed, fair, try again, rinse and repeat.

Lectures, stories, schmoozim, and talks all say that it’s priority alpha to create a safe and trusting home for your kids. “There’s no stability in the outside world. Are kids are bombarded by messages, images, and ideas that are anti-Torah. With all this technology relationships are now defined by numbers of followers.” These are some of the statements you’ll hear people say about this challenges in raising kids. The underlying point is that we have to create a safe zone for our kids. A place where they feel welcome, important, and are loved unconditionally (this I am saying only to myself, since it’s a major area that I am trying to work on). Like the challah that bakes great in the right environment, we need to give our kids the stability of warmth so they can grow to their potential. Cheesy, I know, but true to the core, baby.

The real-deal
Fluff, simply words, or something more? It’s really what you chose to takeaway. I will share this true story on from this past Shabbos night. My son had a bad day in his yeshiva high school and it spilled over to the Shabbos table. I asked him to do something and he didn’t want to do it. I pressed him again and he stuck to his guns (a middah that can be positive or negative). So I pulled out an authoritarian card and he decided to leave the table.

At the time I didn’t think I was asking anything too outrageous. Was I wrong for finally strongly asking him? I would think yes. It was only right after he left that I realized the real crime I committed. I didn’t think about the fact that part of his day in yeshiva really was a major bummer for him. Had a been a sensitive and nurturing parent, I would have stopped after the first time I asked him and just let it go. He wasn’t in the mood do anything I asked him and at that moment it shouldn’t have been a big deal to me. It’s only by knowing our kids and parenting/teaching them in a positive way that we can help them. There are plenty of times when we needs to point out areas of improvement to our kids but sensitivity and common sense have to come first.

Something amazing underneath


The odds are that most of us have done something or accomplished a goal that is, simply, amazing. It may have happened through hard work and hours upon hours or it could have been a spontaneous. It’s a constant challenge for me to remember the highlights of my life and the good points within me.

Remembering those victories, wins, and good points isn’t always easy for me. It requires searching, hitting dead ends, pulling up old memories and feelings, and the worst thing imaginable…facing the truth of what my potential is.

Finding that little bit of greatness (Rebbe Nachman of Breslov would refer to this as the lesson of Azamra. The Alter of Slobodka would say this is about finding the shelaymis inside of us) can be an Indiana Jones-esque adventure, if you really want to find value in what you’ve done or are working towards legit goal.

As someone who wants to want to grow so that I can get closer to my potential I can offer this Starbucks’ chair lesson (I don’t think people still have armchairs). Be careful what you want. Yeah, Tweet worthy, I know. Ratzon, desire, is the bomb.com, as someone in my family says. Rav Dessler quote a Gemara that says Hashem fulfills a sincere ratzon, for Tov (good) or Ra (bad). The example he gives is that sometimes for reasons we don’t understand if a thief has a real desire to break into a store to steal something then Hashem helps make it happen. This isn’t an endorsement of criminal behavior or a heter to break the law and commit an avairah, it’s just how it is sometimes. So, if your real desire is to find that moment when you did something great or you really want to provide for your family then be real about it. My wife says that if you want something bad enough then it will happen (on some form). She’s right. I’ll give you what is both the coolest and most pathetic example.

The two pics above are of an urban exploration location dubbed the “Ashland Water Caves”. These pictures were the first to be posted online back on 2010. Since then urban explorers have been trying to find their location. The location is know to a few people who retreat there to hang out, drink beer (evident by empty bottles), and display their graffiti to their inner circle.

I saw these pics this past January and immediately “had to find them”. With only vague descriptions of short sentences I didn’t have much to go on. I contact the photograph/explorer but he didn’t respond. It’s fairly common for explorers to find a place, post pictures, and then not reveal the location for fear of the site becoming at “tourist attraction” or simply vandalized further. I searched online with various keywords and drove through streets and neighborhood late at night on Google street view. I came to narrow the location to two different places. I went, checked both out, and didn’t see a point of entry. Then a few weeks later I went back and mapped out a way in. Got in and freaked out. It was like visiting the site of a famous speech or going to the location of a famous yeshiva in Europe. I was standing in hollowed ground. I couldn’t believe I had cracked the puzzle that had stumped explorers for at least 5 years.

Cool and pathetic. I had been on this quest and it was a bracha that I found it, with Hashem’s help. I just want to take people there that would appreciate it, but I won’t. It’s not meant for the masses to go to, but to be found.

Pathetic is also how I felt upon leaving the Caves. Energy, hours, and sechel committed to something so selfish. I could have used my inner resources for something that would have helped my family or my attachment to Hashem. I got the message from Above. I was given a first-hand view of what ratzon can accomplish. I did it, not someone else (not in an arrogant way) because I was meant to. So as a new year of opportunity comes I will try to put my efforts into things that can be more beneficial.

Link to Jewish Action article on Neo-Chassidus and Q & A with Rav Moshe Weinberger

Photo courtesy of YU

Photo courtesy of YU

Jewish Action, the magazine of the OU, published an excellent article about the slowly brewing “trend” of Neo-Chassidus in mainstream Orthodox circles. There’s some fantastic quotes from Rav Moshe Weinberger in the article. Here’s one:

“Many of the off-the-derech youth,” he says, “are not running away from authentic Yiddishkeit; they simply never met it.”

The article touches on many different flavors and instruments within this trend. I know, as someone who as been hearing Rav Weinberger’s shiur for 17 years, that certain aspects of Neo-Chassidus work for me. The fact that the OU dedicated an article to it means that hundreds, if not thousands, in OU shuls and beyond might get a little insight into what makes so a bit more excited about their observance. The article can be found here.

Also, a close friend directed me to an interview with Rav Weinberger here.

The Baal HaTanya and the carriage

carriageI was in the process of transcribing the story below that Rav Moshe Weinberger gave on Shabbos Bereishis (and repeated here from a shiur at YU) and, Baruch Hashem, Dixie Yid posted the official drasha based on Rav Weinberger’s notes. I was zoche to be in Woodmere for Simchas Torah and heard the drasha on Shabbos. When I heard the story below, I immediately knew that it was something that was going to stay with me for a long, long time and be something that hovers over me. I am pleased to share the story, as posted by Dixie Yid, below. Please click on the story to read the entire drasha.

 There is a story of the Alter Rebbe, as told by Reb Mottel Slonimer, who is known as one of the most accurate transmitters of chassidic stories, as follows: The Alter Rebbe was at a crossroads early in his life. He was one of the most successful young scholars in Europe and had already mastered the Talmud and halachic authorities. At that point, he felt that he had two choices; to study with the Gaon of Vilna or the Magid of Mezrich. He first chose to study with the Magid of Mezrich.  Although this is not part of Reb Mottel Slonimer’s tradition, it is told that the Alter Rebbe explained his decision to study with the Magid rather than the Gaon of Vilna by saying, “I already know how to learn a little bit, but I haven’t yet learned how to daven.” 

The Alter Rebbe studied with the Magid for several weeks, but he felt that he had not found himself; that the Magid of Mezrich was not the right Rebbe for him. As was the custom at the time, the Alter Rebbe visited the Magid to bid him farewell and seek a blessing for his journey home. During the visit, the Magid accepted his decision, but told him that he should also say goodbye to “the Malach, the angel,” i.e., the Magid’s son Reb Avraham who was known as the Malach because of his great holiness. 

The Alter Rebbe agreed and bid farewell to the Malach, who would later become the Alter Rebbe’s chevrusa. He offered to walk the Alter Rebbe to his horse, wagon, and driver. Before the Alter Rebbe got onto the wagon, the Malach said, “When you get into the wagon, you will see that the driver will smack the horse and it will begin running in an attempt to distance itself from the smack. And then the driver will smack the horse again, and it will run even faster, trying to escape the one pain of the whip. And it will continue on this way throughout your journey. But an intelligent person [Baal Daas] is not a horse. When an intelligent person feels a smack, he does not simply run away from it. He looks back to see who is smacking him and why he is being smacked.”

Being a deep and contemplative person, the Alter Rebbe understood the Malach’s message and stayed in Mezrich, ultimately becoming one of the star students of the Magid. May we all merit to understand the message of the wagon (עגלה)  and look beyond the suffering of the world of strict justice to see G-d’s loving kindness, and thus merit the final redemption, quickly (בעגלא) in our days.

Yeah, this was it! This was what I needed to hear. When difficulties come up, when things don’t work out with parnassassah, when chinuch issues arise, I have do decide if I want to look back and see who’s “whipping” me and why or do I want to just be a horse and keep trying to run away?

I am my own worst enemy


drown quote-Cole

I don’t like having to accept or digest that truth that I am, at times, my own worst enemy. It’s uncomfortable for me to hear that truth. It’s even more difficult when I know it myself and don’t take steps to change. Were it not Elul (the month prior the Jewish High Holiday and my tradition sees the month as a time of introspection) I probably would have dismissed this truth. Had I not been actively working on specific middos (character traits) for the past 32 days and also been actively keeping a cheshbon hanefesh (a spiritual accounting) I would have blown off the notion that I am my own worst enemy when I hold myself back. I’m drowning and it’s my fault. I’ve been saying this for the past day, but seeing it typed sort of makes it official. The reality is that it is Elul and if there was ever a time for me to be receptive, then this is the time, baby.

It not easy. The person who carried this message to me is someone that wants what is best for me. Being presented with the opportunity to absorb this truth is sort of a “make it or break it” thing. It’s not a “flight or fight” thing because fleeing from knowing that I’m my own worst enemy means simply lying to myself. Accepting this means only one thing…action. No excuses, rationalizations, or verbal attempts to circumvent reality. Accepting that I am the only one that can take action to change myself (with Hashem’s help) mean also accepting that all isn’t great in Neilville. Using the term connotative dissonance or simply attributing this lack of action to not seeing enough Nike ads (“Just Do It.” doesn’t stop pain of realizing what I need to really change. It’s got nothing to do specific mitzvos (commandments) or middos or my yetzer hora (evil inclination). It’s about connecting both with who I really am and with my creator. I know this not because it was told to me or it was something that I read. I know, but of tears. When we cry it’s either because of joy and not having the proper words to express that joy or it’s because of sadness. A sadness that a person has when their heart is broken. Not broken my someone they love, but broken because they realize they need help and they realize that the path they took wasn’t the right one. The decisions they made only pushed them farther from their potential. Maybe this resonates with someone, I don’t know. What I know is that it’s from the heart.

“There is nothing as whole, or as perfect, as a broken heart.” – Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe

If a heart is broken then how can it be whole? Because once we have a broken heart then we can see what is needed to mend it.  Like the tagline at the end of the old G.I. Joe cartoons, “…and knowing is half the battle.” When I know my deficiencies, my weak points, and the root of them (in this case, holding myself back from what needs to be done), then I’m able to see the actions that can repair things. This makes a broken heart whole. This gets you to swim so that you don’t drown.

Sometimes remaining silent just lets you refocus

speechIt’s been almost a year since I’ve actually written a post on Modern Uberdox. I wish I could say that it’s because I’ve been writing a book, spending free time learning ,spending time on family, spending time on my career, or spending time in the gym. It’s some of the above, but not enough of any of the above to really yield real results. I’ve been adrift, alone. Not physically alone, but simply floating my boat here and there. Why write right now? I was looking up something online and one of the hits happened to be Modern Uberdox, the old pre-WordPress version (with updated links to make you think). I was sort of taken back, because when I read the post that came up in the search it was solid. No fluff, no sensationalism, no references to taboo subjects within frum life.

So, here I go again. No daily posts, but no silence for weeks or months on end, either. There are things that I need to write (because if I said most of them, my kids wouldn’t get any play dates and my wife would be more embarrassed by me than usual). I have thought about disabling comments, since most of my posts rarely get much feedback, but I won’t. If you read something that I write (not this, but, like, in the future) then take it. Grab it, put it in your pocket, wallet, Coach bag, laptop bag, or padfolio. Chew on it and figure out how to make it into something that might help with your own Avodah. Bring it into the real world,. Use it when you deal with friends, family, or the creepy dude at Starbucks who always comes over to you (because you are Jewish) and says, “Shalom.” The quote below was the original quote that was the header when I started blogging. Right now, it seems more relevant than ever to me.

“I write not because I have the strength to write, but because I do not have the strength to remain silent.” -Rav Avraham Yitzchok Kook zt’l

Rav Weinberger on the churban

Rav Moshe Weinberger writes:

Only after the destruction of the Temple could the order of our daily prayers be established. In the horrifying desolation and loneliness the Jewish heart began to scream and tefillos were formed. The churban meant the removal of the religious ritual with which we had become comfortable, and we found ourselves alone with G-d. – Prayer: Neglected Paths and Forgotten Longings – Jewish Action, Fall 1990

Rav Moshe Weinberger is the Rav of Cong Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY and the Mashpiah at Yeshiva University


I need YOU to join me in helping Chai Lifeline

Bike pic1Hi, I know that I haven’t written anything fresh in a while. Thanks because I’ve been trying to spend more time with my family after work. When they are asleep I’ve been biking, since I will be biking on Lake Shore Drive this Sunday, May 25th more than 50 miles. This is my 7th year joining Chai Lifeline’s Bike The Drive. I’m please to say that, so far, I have raised more than $1200, but I want to do more. This is where YOU come in. If you have ever liked something that I have posted, hated something that I wrote, or just come to my blog for 3 seconds and leave then I’m addressing YOU.

If possible, please sponsor me by going here. All donations are tax deductible and the website will accept sponsors until Monday, May 26th. Plus there’s a link on the top of that page to my embarrassing YouTube video I posted. Thanks!!!!!





May 9, 2014

The pursuit of uncool


If you ask my wife and three kids (a boy, 14 and two girls, 11 and 7) if I am a good father, I’m not sure what they would answer. If you ask them if they think I’m a cool abba, they’ll tell you that I used to be cool. Being cool is a choice. I spent, what seems like months, saying to my own children. “Kids, I really am cool.”

I tried explaining to them about the glory of the 80s and how music was much better back then, especially the stuff that fell into the categories of college radio and punk. I tried showing them how a bunch of my friends all dressed differently than everyone else (we all mostly wore black…very original). I told my daughters that I had crazy hairspray and hair dryer skills that they couldn’t even dream about. It was never a conscious choice, but during high school and the beginning of college I was seen as being “cool.”

I know plenty of parents that go out of their way to appear cool to their kids. They might try to friend their kids and their kids’ friends on Facebook, be up on the latest music, novels, and texting abbreviations. If that works for you and the relationship you want to have with our kids, more power to you. I eventually gave up and just accepted the fact that I was no longer cool. I stopped trying to be cool in their eyes.

It was much easier than I thought it would be. However, I found that the choice of not being cool opened up a whole new avenue of going out of my way to be uncool. I had thoughts of calling my kids’ friends by nicknames that only I would understand. I had visions of interrupting play dates my kids had by doing the robot dance. To my family’s delight, I rarely acted upon these examples.

What I did implement was a conscious choice to show my kids that I wasn’t cool. Again, I am far from a model parent, but this mindset has fostered a more positive relationship with my kids. This was much easier than I thought in some aspects. My wife and I have always stressed to our children that there are things our family does and it might be a little different than other what other families do. There are TV shows, music, and movies that we feel are appropriate and others that are not. These decisions to be uncool, at times, are not easy, but my kids have learned that my wife and I are willing to listen to their points of view and if we are swayed to their side it is solely because they have valid reasons and not because we are looking to be “those parents,” the ones that propel the parent/child relationship with the fuel of coolness.

Rabbi Joseph Hurwitz (1847-1919), known as the Elder of Novardok (a city in Belarus) taught that, “When the world means nothing, life means everything.” I have always looked at this quote as a message that we have to stand our ground sometimes. We shouldn’t always do things that the masses are doing, especially if it goes against our value system. When we stop worrying about what others think is when we can have opportunities to do what we know is the right thing in life. This is something that we can’t lecture our kids about; it is something that we have to show by example. I am no poster child for leading by example all the time. I am, however, blessed with three great kids who are learning the importance of doing the right thing, which is a foundation of Judaism.

Neil Harris and his family live in West Rogers Park and, aside from being uncool, he works in commercial finance and writes monthly for Oy! Chicago.

Originally posted in JUF NEWS-May 9th, 2014