Monthly Archives: November 2006

‘Mapquest Yiddishkeit’

Don’t let the title throw you off, just stick this one out for a minute or two. I’ve been living in Chicago for nine months now, and I really have no clue about where things are geographically. I don’t really use a map anymore, I use Mapquest. I can tell you what exit I need to take to get to a museum, or how many miles I need to go until I turn left to get to someone’s house, but I can’t place too many locations on a map. I’ve become a product of what I’d like to call the ‘Mapquest generation’.

I contrast this with living in New York (1991-1997) where, I felt, I had a pretty good grasp of where thing were in each borough and Long Island (with the exception of a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn and all of Jersey). The main reason that I knew how to get places was because I used maps, not Mapquest. I knew streets as streets, and what was located nearby because I used a map.

With Mapquest one only knows how to get to their location, not what else is around the area.
I think there is a difference between knowing the directions of how to get to a hashkafic location and knowing where ones’ hashkafa is relation to other hashkafos.

I just hope I don’t raise a generation of ‘Mapquest Jews’. What I mean is Jews who know only how to get to their own derach and don’t see where they are in relation to other acceptable avenues and streets of Torah Judaism. Understanding where you are holding and respecting other is key how we function with a frum society.

The ‘Maquest model’ does have some redeeming value. For me it can serve a very useful function. When I am not on target with my Avodas Hashem, there is value in just getting basic directions to where I need to go, without the details of the surrounding area.

I know there are areas in which I slack. Davening b’tsibur is a challenge for me, at times. Applying the Mapquest approach would mean that I should focus only on my destination, in this case getting to a minyan. Where I am, in relation to others, in Avodas Hashem is only important in terms of chizuk.

It says in Peirkei Avos, “Ha Makir Es Makomo”, one should know ones’ place.

Scandal + Wrongdoing = PR Nightmare

Sadly, people make wrong choices. Some choices that our observant brothers and sisters make seem to be brought to light in blogs, print, radio, and TV. From sexual misbehavior to financial misrepresentation to a break in trust with kashrus…we see it all, these days. While different forms of media, both Jewish and non-Jew, expose these terrible events within our communities, for me, as an observant Jew, it’s a public relations nightmare.

I, who has chosen a path of ethical and religious life, am often bombarded with questions from both non-religious relatives and non-jewish friends.
“How could a religious person do such a thing?”
“Isn’t a Rabbi a holy person?”
“Don’t you answer to a ‘higher standard’?”
“Is this what you’re raising your kids to be like?”
“Doesn’t your Torah teach you ethics?”

I’ll stop. You can probably think of half a dozen other questions. What do I do? How do I respond? I don’t really have the answers. I’ve told people the standard, “Don’t judge a religion by the people” line, but that really doesn’t cut it.

The truth is that we all have to answer for our actions. The concept of reward and punishment is fundamental to Judaism. When I’m finally judged, the excuse of, “At least I didn’t pass off non-kosher chicken for kosher,” doesn’t really matter. We are judged against ourselves and our potential.
Does anyone have any other ideas about how do deal with these issues?

How I dealt with the Agudah and Blogs

When I first heard about the Agudah coming down on blogs, I was a bit surprised. I had a real urge to take a picture of one of the local “Agudath Israel” funded schools buses and Photoshop a bumper sticker that read “I BREAK FOR BLOGS”. While I would have found my creation quite humorous, it would not have been very Uberdox. I felt that a more direct and menshlikeit approach would be better than just blogging about how the “Agudah is picking on bloggers” (plus my kid enjoys riding the bus home from school, thanks to the Agudah).

Below is a the text of my letter to Rabbi Shafran and his reply. All in all, I was glad that I chose to directly address my concerns and I was pleased with the reply. I actually left him a voicemail thanking him for his email to me. I hope that someone will post an accurate and non-biased report of what will actually go down at the convention.

November 2, 2006

Dear Rabbi Shafran,
I’ll start off by thanking you for taking a few minutes to read this. I’m sure you’ve gotten a headaches worth of email and phone calls concerning the recent Yated article about the upcoming convention, which quotes Rabbi Zweibel as saying that:
“In recent years, though,” the Agudah leader observes, “due to a variety of factors, the authority of daas Torah has been significantly undermined, even within our own chareidi circles. Most troubling has been the proliferation of Internet ‘blogs’ where misguided individuals feel free to spread every bit of rechilus and loshon hora about rabbonim and roshei yeshiva, all with the intended effect of undermining any semblance of Torah authority in our community.”
I agree this is a major problem. I’m happy to see that it is being discussed at the Agudah convention. I am concerned though. As someone who is a “blogger”, I am worried. I’m familar with all the reasons why certain blogs are totally anti-daas Torah and, in fact, do nothing but promote chillul Hashem, sinas chinam, and a complete lack of respect towards rabbonim. I agree that those blogs are harmful to klal Yisrael.
There are blogs out there that are, in fact, similar to what is produced by Am Echad. Insightful, sensitive, timely approaches to important issues (although they are not was well written as what you write). Some blogs, such as are geared toward the baalei teshuva community and allows Torah observant Jews from across the world to discuss, learn and grow in their yiddishkeit.
I, personally, blog under my own name. I have an average of 40 readers per posting and if I was to stop my blog, I wouldn’t be missed by too many. I hope that in the Agudah’s effort to intelligently and thoughfully deal with the issues that Rabbi Zweibel has mentioned, the end result is not a complete campaign against blogging as a whole. There are plenty of ehrlich frum yidden who learning, davening, give tzedaka, teach, and help raise the next generation of Torah Jews, and happen to blog, as well.
Thank you for your time and if you feel this message should be passed along to others, please do so. I will not be able to attend the convention, but might try to join the Midwest convention. If you feel I should share my views with Rabbi Kalish or others within the Agudah leadership here in Chicago, please feel free to make any suggestion to me. Thanks again and have a great Shabbos.

Neil Harris
Chicago, IL

Dear Mr. Harris,
Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful letter. I personally agree with your sentiments and will share your e-mail with others, including Rabbi Zwiebel. I think I can assure you that Agudath Israel has no complaints against blogs like yours — my own essays are occasionally posted on at least one responsible blog, Cross-Currents. There can be no question that much good is being accomplished by the web-presence of responsible, intelligent frum people… any criticism of blogs from us, as a careful reading of Rabbi Zwiebel’s statement should show, is clearly aimed at the irrresponsible and destructive ones. Again, thanks for writing, and much continued hatzlacha to you, in your blogging and in all else.
Good Shabbos,

The truth within the joke

Two weeks ago my 7 year old told me the following joke that he had heard in school.
“What did the banana say to the apple?”
“I don’t know,” I replied
“Nothing. Fruit can’t speak”, my son answered.

That same day the Agudah Israel convention spoiler was published in the Yated concerning blogs and attacks on Daas Torah.
That night I thought about the joke my son told me. He’s right, fruit can’t speak. However, people can.

Several bloggers quickly posting about the Agudah’s statement about certain types of blogs. I chose a different route. I sent an email that night to an Agudath employee and the next morning I had a reply waiting for me in my email’s inbox.

Fruit can’t speak. People can.

Jewish life outside of my Dalet Amos

I had a unique opportunity to meet a former national president of Hadassah this past Sunday. While she is not Torah observant, she said she was a “strong supporter of Israeli and American Jewish causes, and sensitive to Orthodox issues”.

She told me that she lives in West Palm Beach, FL and that it is the fastest growing Jewish community in the United States. I said that make sense with Palm Beach being close in proximity to Boca Raton, which is the largest growing Orthodox community in America.

This nice woman, who is 82 years old, then proudly told me that there are so many day schools and shuls where she lives. She said that without exception all movements within Judaism are moving to the right. No matter if its spirituality, taking on a new mitzvah, or studying the Torah, she said, reform and conservative Jews are moving more to the right, trying to catch up to people like me (Torah Observant, if you hadn’t guessed). She claims that this move to the right has been happening for decades, but now it’s more public because being Jewish has been accepted by the media as an ‘in thing’.

This got me thinking about our own Torah observant communities. I’ll tell you the truth, the first thing that comes to mind is trend of taking on more chumros. Moving to the right doesn’t have to mean that we become more extreme or take on an attitude of stringency. Moving to the right might just be our way of gravitating towards the goal of become an Am Kodesh.

Some positive moves recently have been the growing number of chessed and sh’miros halashon programs, the number of shiurim available in shuls or as MP3s, the increased number of tehillim groups, a multitude of gemachs, and increased levels of tzedaka.

Perhaps the shift to the right that is taking place outside the Dalet Amos of the Torah observant Jewish community is due to the strengthening of own Avodas Hashem?

Or maybe, it’s the other way. Maybe Hashem is helping our non-observant brothers and sisters move more to the right in order to motivate us to move close to Hashem, as well.

Stain Resistance and Bad Midos

I once heard an interesting approach to dealing with bad midos. The idea is that you should think about anger, depression, jealousy, or any other potentially harmful midos as outside forces that are moving towards you. To fight them you simply just imagine that they cannot get past the buttons of your shirt and bounce off of you, like a shield.

Today I was reminded of that moshel.

While driving to work this morning a car switched lanes right in front of me. Of course, without signaling. Of course, I was sipping my coffee. Of course, I spilled some coffee all over my shirt. Baruch Hashem, I was wearing a stain-resistant shirt from Old Navy that my wife bought me. The best thing about this shirt is that water and oil based liquids, like my coffee, roll right off of the fabric.

It really worked. The coffee just rolled off of my shirt. It was as if the coffee was never spilled!

Bad midos are out there. Forces, external and internal, try to make us depressed and angry. The yetzer hora constantly tries to make me lose my patience with people. I can fight it. I just need to remind myself that I, too, can be stain-resistant, like my shirt. This is the first line of defense. I just can’t let bad midos get past my buttons, or push my buttons.

A life lesson from a Babka

Babka. Just the word make me hungry. I love a good chocolate babka (although even the best babka doesn’t hold a havadalah candle to a Zomick’s Meltaway). Whenever we go into NYC (really LI) it’s like babkapalooza for me. Or, at the very least, a babka on Shabbos. Two Shabbosim on the Coast, means two Babkas! A third Shabbos means…you get the idea. Regular or sugar-free, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s good (and their sugar-free cinnamon babka is killer).

On a previous vacation I purchased a chocolate babka for Shabbos Kodesh. Who made babka or where I purchased it isn’t important. I was happy to have a babka! Shabbos morning after I davened, I was ready to dig in! I cut a slick, chunk, section, sliver, portion, call it what you like, made by bracha and took a bite.

GOOD NIGHT!! GEVALT! I couldn’t believe what I was tasting.


Not an overpowering amount of salt. But the chocolate babka was a shtickel salty. I was shocked.

Then I smiled. Not everything thing home-made or bakery-made should always come out the same. It’s a fresh made babka, not some frozen babka (not that I know of any). The fact that it was a little salty only reminded me that someone made it. Life is full of mistakes. Miss-calculations do occur when measuring salt. I’ve made mistakes before. I’ve never actually sold a mistake I’ve made to anyone as a delicious treat for Shabbos Kodesh, but I’ve made mistakes.

In fact, I remember thinking, I actually appreciated the babka more, knowing that it wasn’t exactly perfect.

Sometimes the babka we eat is salty. Sometimes things do not turn out the way we’d like them to. Sometimes what we bake doesn’t turn out the way we plan it to. There’s always another babka.

My once a month crazy habit

It’s human nature to want what we can’t have. Usually when we get what we want the value of that which we desired is diminished in our eyes. The phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” comes to mind.

Within the first week of every month, when I’m at a grocery store or drug store (preferably CVS) I look at the candy aisle. I always try to make sure that there are not other Torah observant Jews around (due to Moris Eyin issues) and pick up a package of Skittles. I quickly turn it over and look toward the end of the ingredient list to see if it has an OU and then put it back with it’s friends on the shelf.

The rumor was, ever since M&M’s got an OU in the mid 90s, that the OU would pursue certification for Skittles in the future. There are very few foods, if any, that I miss after keeping kosher almost 18 years (over half my life, which is pretty cool). I was, actually, never a big fan of Skittles. Yet I check.
I guess, as I think and write about this seemingly-trivial-issue it boils down, like a good pot of Shabbos soup, to two things:

1) Do I really miss something that, in the big scheme of things, plays no really role in my Avodas Hashem?

2) Hey, I’ve survived this long without it. That’s not too shabby.

Both of these items might become future posting material, as in my mind, they contain hashkafic concepts that I sometime forget about.

Jewish Rock 101

Note: The following was sent to me by Ruby Harris. While we are not related, we do share the same neighborhood.

The Inventors of Jewish Rock,one of the first modern Klezmer bands, Innovators at the turning point in the history of Jewish music,The band that started it all,The Diaspora Yeshiva Band

By Ruby Harris, Original member on Violin, Mandolin, Guitar, Harmonica, Vocals

Jewish music history can be divided into two periods: BD and AD, which stands for Before and After the Diaspora Yeshiva Band. The music before us was so different than the music after us. So many innovations and musical arrangements used daily in the Jewish music world are direct products of the influence of this band at the turning point. Most of your favorite music today is somehow a derivative of the DYB, the band that started it all. Several of today’s hottest acts are actually either composed of members of the original DYB or their children, and of course countless students, followers, and fans.

But it wasn’t always so…

If Rock n’ Roll was born in the 50s, and the 60s saw it be fruitful and multiply, then the 70s saw an interesting phenomenon when some of these musicians began to find that old time religion, and in the Holy Land of Israel in particular some of them gathered in a very musical and spiritual place on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, and formed a band that was called “The Diaspora Yeshiva Band”. From approximately 1976 to 1986 3 things occurred: 1) they became one of the most popular bands in Jewish music. 2) The Jewish music before this time was about to go through what can only be described as the same basic transformation that the world of popular music went through with the Beatles, and 3) The old Jewish/Yiddish music was re-discovered and became amalgamated with new worlds of music. Innovations, emulations, and revelations were suddenly overtaking the Jewish world, and the DYB can be viewed as either credited with or guilty of manifesting this transformation. Today of course, most Jewish music has some rock sounds incorporated within, but back then it was unheard of, and such a thing bordered on the taboo.

Almost parallel to the first Rock’n Roll stars and their society, the union of Rock with Jews didn’t come so smoothly, it was a rocky road at first, particularly in the years roughly from 1973-1982. Jewish music didn’t catch up with the rest of the world so fast. I remember one time we were doing a concert at the Jerusalem Theater and after the show someone comes up to us and emotionally expressed his disapproval of the Holy words being fused with rock sounds (Elvis and Ray Charles got the same reaction).

Also in that early gestation period, there was the sensation that the DYB caused at the Chassidic Song Festival. We won first place 2 years in a row, thus causing the voting committee to re-write the rules so that we don’t take over…

The great Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was also a victim, in those years and even earlier, of the old problem of being an innovator: the public simply was not ready. But we’re in good company-Mozart, Benny Goodman, and Bob Dylan also met with resistance until the world came around. We played many concerts with Shlomo.

Klezmer? The old Hebrew-Yiddish word had not yet even begun to be re-discovered and re-used yet, and we were continuously toggling with what to call our new genre: Yiddish Jazz? Chassidic Rock? Country & Eastern Music, Rhythm & Jews, Jewgrass, who knows? We took an old Jewish wedding standard, added a rhythm section, a hot clarinet, a seething guitar solo, a devil-went-down-to-Georgia-type fiddle breakdown, and some extended Kabalistic jams and it wasn’t long before the listening public took notice that that old Jewish music wasn’t so out of date after all. I remember a phone call and a visit from David Grey, one of the members of the new-genre group “The Klezmorim”, who came to my home in Jerusalem for an interview, plus, an early wedding involved sitting-in for some tunes at the old legendary New York restaurant Lou G. Seigles with Hankus Netsky and Don Byron of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, both bands being the first of the new “klezmer” bands in those pre-natal years. At a concert in Philadelphia, our opening act was the newly formed Kapelye with Henry Sapoznik. An early meeting with Andy Statman also found him asking me all about Jewish music as well as Jewish philosophy, quite some time before he “returned” to the fold. I convinced him to check out some Breslov music, and a few years later we found ourselves on stage together at a sold-out concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. He had quite a beard by then…

While Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention and Jefferson Airplane were taking old English & Irish nigguns (folk melodies) and suffusing them with the blues, we were doing the same thing in this post-Woodstock world with Jewish standards Dreydle dreydle, Dayenu, and Chasen Kala Mazal Tov. Plus, as with our favorite beloved Anglo/American rock heroes, we were writing and performing our own originals, one of which can almost be called the Official Anthem of the Baal Tshuva (returnee) Movement, “Malchutcha”. We had some fun, oy vey, doing a Hendrixian Hatikva, the Shma ala Doors (hey, the mezuza goes on the Doors!), a David Melech Squaredance, a liturgical Beatles medley, endless Grateful Dead-style jams on Ketzad Merakdim, or Gesher Tzar Meod per Santana, and so on. Another funny thing, at first, as antique ‘78’ records of Bill Monroe, Howlin’ Wolf and Jellyroll Morton started catching our interest among the Jolson, Cantor, and Sophie Tuckers in our grandfather’s attic, we started paying attention to the funny green-labeled Yiddish ones too, that revealed a virtually hidden and buried world of dusty stars like Naftulie Brandwine, V. Belf, Dave Tarras, Abe Schwartz and Aaron Lebedeff, now looked at as the patriarchs of Klezmer recordings.

The Torah predicted that in the days before the Moshiach, there would be a return of the exiles, a great influx of converts, and a movement of returnees to Judaism. I’m happy to say I was there at the beginning of that movement, and the DYB provided the soundtrack. We traveled around the world playing for a remarkable cross section of the people that range from the roots to the fruits of the movement: Holocaust survivors, Israeli soldiers, Yeshiva students, Hebrew school children, Chassidic dynasties, Kibbutz & Moshav celebrations, and a thirsty generation searching for the answer.Every Saturday night we gave a now-legendary concert called “King David’s Melave Malka” post-Shabbat celebration at his actual tomb on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, a central Biblical historic site. Once, Broadway star Pearl Baily and her husband jazz legend Louie Belson were on a pilgrimage to this site and the nearby ‘Last Supper’ room, and she just happened to be at King David’s Tomb during my wedding, and she came in and sang “Hello Dolly” to the newlywed couple. People come up to me all the time recalling those concerts and how special they were, and so many of today’s musicians tell me things like “when we first saw you guys, we decided that, hey, we could do that too!” I even recently met a mother of ten who confessed that she was about to leave Judaism altogether when at a last ditch effort she came to one of our shows and she stayed in the fold, got married, and the rest is her-story.

Before the 6 Day War, Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Goldstein started the Diaspora Yeshiva which was the first Baal Tshuva Yeshiva. The location was Mt. Zion where King David is buried (down below in ancient catacombs). When David was a young shepherd from his home town of Bethlehem just south of Jerusalem, he used to take his sheep and graze them, and where would he go? A prophet and spiritual master of the highest caliber, he naturally was attracted to the center of the universe, the Temple Mount where his son Solomon was later to build the Holy Temple. He took his Harp and composed the most famous music in history, the Psalms as he, in symbolic parallel to G-d watching over his people, shepherded his sheep daily between his home and Mt. Moriah, the Temple Mount, the place where his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had their prophetic revelations and grazed their flocks.His music, which is soaked into the architecture and the very earth of this location, drew people like us to David’s Holy Mt. Zion, which is the neighboring mountain to the Temple Mount. We played and sang and expressed the hope of the returning of Jerusalem, and the simcha (joy) of Torah learning. The mystical possibilities were incalculably inspiring. The music wasn’t so bad at first either, and it kept getting better, and with a few savvy people and some smart moves, we got some sound equipment and started recording, and we actually managed to not only lay down some extremely original material, but also expressed the lofty spiritual feeling of the moment.

From 1973 to 1976 can be called the early period, with many changes in personnel ranging from a few guys jamming to a big band, at which point in June of 1977 the actual “DYB” was formed and solidified, with the original 6 members being: Avraham Rosenblum on guitar, Ben Zion Solomon on fiddle and banjo, Simcha Abramson on Saxaphone and Clarinet, Ruby Harris (this writer) on Violin, Mandolin, Guitar, and Harmonica, Adam Wexler on Bass, and Gedalia Goldstein on Drums. Before and after this, many great and illustrious people came and went, such as Rabbi Moshe Shur, Chaim David, Rabbi Shimon Green, Menachem Herman, Beryl and Ted Glazer, Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig, Yochanan Lederman, and Rabbi Tzvi Miller. We played in a 2000 year old building resembling the Cavern Club in Liverpool. Getting electricity into these Byzantine and Crusader edifices was no small endeavor. The acoustics were amazing, though.

Our history of performances is incomparable: Wartime shows for troops from Sinai to Lebanon, concerts and events for such public figures as Menachem Begin, Yitzchak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres and many other VIPs and statesmen, parties and banquets with Isaac Stern, Shlomo Carlebach, Abba Eban, President Herzog, (and later President Clinton & Mayors Giulianni and Daley), an early MTV video performance and interview featured in the Bob Dylan tour with Tom Petty, and ultimately, concerts at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, and the Metropolitan Opera House. Somehow, Lynard Skynard’s drummer Artemis Pyle even played with us and donated his awesome drum set to the yeshiva!

The band broke up in the mid 80s and the members have all gone off in different directions, most notably: BZ Solomon does extensive recording and performances worldwide, Rabbi Shur is an executive with the Hillel Organization and also records and performs, Rabbi Green is the head of a Seminary in Jerusalem, Avraham Rosenblum keeps the Diaspora flame burning with his new band, Chaim David has become a Jewish music superstar, and I perform and record extensively in an eclectic range of styles from Jewish Rock and Klezmer to Blues, Jazz and Country, including other notable relationships, such as a series of recordings with members of the original Sun Records rhythm section, who’ve made history as players in the bands of Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. Adam Wexler is a member of Reva L’Sheva, one of today’s finest Jewish rock groups, and finally, Simcha, Gedalia, Beryl, Ted, and Menachem have all advanced to the higher original goals of scholarship, spiritual mastery, and various lofty musical projects and endeavors.

But most charmingly, is the fact that many of the children of the original members of the DYB are among today’s hottest stars, as members of Soulfarm, Moshav Band, and oodles of other contemporary projects ranging from some of New York’s top wedding bands to fine art music recordings. Occasionally several of the guys get together for projects, such as 2 recent DYB reunion shows on Long Island and at the Catskills Homowack Hotel, and there are some real tasty dishes simmering in the musical kitchen. If you’re looking for the original members to perform these days, they all do so, emphasizing their newer compositions and styles, but most of the guys are still happy to give you the old tunes if you really bug ‘em. Keep listening!
Ruby Harris is an original member of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, and since the close of that primordial period in the history of Jewish Rock, Ruby has been seen opening for Ray Charles, Marshall Tucker Band, and Little Feat, and he’s performed with Peter Yarrow, Mordechai Ben David, Buddy Miles, Avraham Fried, Pinetop Perkins, and members Jefferson Airplane, Klezmatics and Grateful Dead. He lives in West Rogers Park, Chicago and presently performs in concert, on recordings, and at someone-you-know’s wedding. His website is where, along with and, his latest CD “For Heaven’s Sake” is available, as is his CD “Almost Home”, featuring Pine Top Perkins and Sugar Blue. For recordings of any of the artists mentioned, see your local Jewish music store or look them up on line.
This article is the exclusive (copyright 2006) property of Ruby Harris

Samples of Ruby’s latest CD are available here.