Category Archives: children

The way Yiddishkeit is transmitted

Graphic from here

“Yiddishkeit is only transmitted one way, through simcha. It’s not transmitted through intimidation.”

The quote, isn’t mine (but I wish it was).  It was said by Dr. Rabbi Jerry Lob, a clinical psychologist in Chicago.  These two sentences are actually from a lecture he gave a number of years ago for Priority-1 titled “The Making of a Mentch”.  The mp3 is available for streaming or downloading here.  I look at these everyday when I come into work.  My children would probably be better off if I posted them on the back door to read become I come home.

All too often the core values we want to impart, the middos we wish to highlight, and minhagim we wish to give over, and the Toarh we attempt to teach isn’t always transmitted through simcha.     This really should be a refrigerator magnet and sold as a fundraiser for a school or yeshiva (another good idea of mine that someone will profit from).

Think about it.  If teachers would read this before starting their teaching day, our chinuch system might be a little different.  If I read this before sitting down for a Shabbos meal, trying to get a child to start their limudei Kodesh homework, or telling my own kids kids to clean their rooms our home would be different.  I don’t think that showing simcha is the end all cure for all the ills within society, but it has got to be a better option than intimidation.

For more reading about happiness, I will refer you to an article about the Chazon Ish’s view of happiness that can be found here.

2nd yahrzeit of my father a"h

So, tonight marks the second yahrtzeit of my father Al Harris a”h, Avraham ben Zorach. While the picture on the the right might not be the clearest, it was taken on his last visit with us in Chicago, in July of 2009, only three and a half months before he was niftar. 

It’s funny how the mind works. A few months ago when R.E.M. broke up I had a flashback to my sophomore year in high school. It was a Thursday night in the fall of 1985 and my father was driving me from Wichita, KS to Kansas City- a three our drive. It must had been fairly late at night, because we were listening to Larry King’s talk show and he had Michael Stipe (lead singer from R.E.M) on as a guest and there were tons of calls to him about the state of college music.  My dad thought it was cool that “my music” was being talked about on the radio.  That wasn’t the cool part.  The really cool part was that my dad was driving me all the way to Kansas City, so that I could catch an Amtrack train to St. Louis to attend an NCSY shabbaton (youth group retreat weekend).  He drove me and then drove straight back home.

So, tonight marks the second yahrtzeit of my father Al Harris, Avraham ben Zorach.  While the picture on the the right might not be the clearest, it was taken on his last visit with us in Chicago, in July of 2009, only three and a half months before he was niftar. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l taught the world that it is giving that leads to love, not love that leads to giving.  Meaning, that the love we have for another is a natural outcome of our giving to another, of the deeds we perform.  Deeds that come from giving, like driving me three hours away to catch a train. 

Isn’t "half-Shabbos" only half bad?

This is probably not a surprise, but I’m not in favor of “half-Shabbos”.  In fact, I strongly suggest that if you haven’t read Rabbi Maryles’ post on the subject from last week, then you should.

Of course, it’s not just high school age teens.  I know of twenty-somethings that do this, too.  Like germs, technology trends, fad diets, and a funny clip on YouTube… it’s everwhere.

If I found out that my own son or daughter was texting on Shabbos, I’m not sure what I would do (it would probably involved some screaming, sadly).  Most likely, I’d start playing the blame game.  It’s pretty easy to blame the school and the parents for not teaching our youth to appreciate the beauty of Shabbos.  It’s even easier to look at our shuls, Rabbanim, and community leaders and think that if there was more real leadership or a feeling of passion about Yiddishkeit then these kids would feel some busha about texting in parks or behind closed doors.  I’ve read about this in blogs for almost a year.  I’ve seen the comments, schmoozed with a few friends about this and there’s one question that I haven’t heard.

What were these people doing on Shabbos before they started texting and using their phone on Shabbos Kodesh?  Probably tearing toilet-paper, picking out the bad jelly-beans from the good ones, watching movies on Shabbos with their iPhones on Netflix (with headphones), chewing treif gum or even something worse.  The odds are that someone who is keeping “half-Shabbos” by texting has been involved in other less-headline grabbing aspects of chillul Shabbos for some time.  I know, you’re thinking, “You are right, Neil.  I’ve read countless articles in the Jewish Week, Jewish Press, Chicago Jewish News, and the Baltimore Jewish Times about so many high school age teens that are being rebellious by double-knotting their shoes on Shabbos.”  In fact, if we assur’ed lace-up shoes, then we could stem the tide of kids at-risk.

If we want to really isolate the blame as to why “half-Shabbos” has become a trend then we have to swallow the hechshared or other-the-counter-approved pill and look at the person reading this (I’ll take care of looking at the person writing this).  It’s us.

We are to blame.

If you choose to blame the schools or the shuls, then stop.  If you think the schools and shuls should be more involved in promoting the concept of Ahavas Hashem and the importance of building a relationship with Hashem then you have to be the one to discuss it with those people in charge.  If you think that parents who try to be friends with their kids instead of being parents are to blame for not being more aware of what their kids are doing, then learn how to approach the parents.  Now, it could be that parents and educators don’t have the tools needed to approach those that keep “half-Shabbos”.  Then we need to pull together Rabbis, educators, Kiruv-types, and adolescent psychologists to figure out a game plan.

I’m an optimist by default.  This “glitch in the matrix” is just that, a glitch.  This is just a trend.  We, as an observant community, have dealt with both youth and adults not keeping “full Shabbos” in the past.  In fact, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter encountered it when he moved to the port city of Memel of Lithuania, a community that wasn’t so into keeping Shabbos:

Reb Yisroel did not take a harsh, uncompromising stance against Sabbath desecration in that setting. Instead, he resorted to a soft, graduated approach. In his first sermon he explained the concept of Shabbos to the people on their level, concluding that chillul Shabbos at the port was intolerable because of the writing involved – the major Sabbath desecration of running a business. He did not discuss the actual portering of goods. Many agreed that they could postpone their writing until the weekdays, while the loading and unloading continued.

Some weeks later he suggested that without too much sacrifice, it should be possible not to send shipments, even if goods did arrive. Slowly this approach too became acceptable to the merchants. After a period of time, he convinced them that even the unloading was not vital – and the Jewish merchants of the city ceased all their port activities on the Shabbos. A revolutionized Memel emerged.  (From Tnuas Hamussar vol 1, page 186)

One of the many things to learn from the above story is that you can’t always have an “all or nothing” approach.  That doesn’t work all the time.  In fact, we don’t even need to look to a story about Jewish life in 1860, I can look to our times.  There’s a group called Reboot who started a campaign a few years ago called the Sabbath Manifesto.

It wasn’t started by a kiruv organization, an outreach yeshiva, or an umbrella organization that represents Torah Jews.  It was started by diverse group of non-Orthodox Jews.  They try to and have been successful in getting people to reduce using communication devices on Shabbos.  They even sell a cool sleeping bag to put your cell phone into.  The had a national day of unplugging in March and had thousands of people unplug from their phones for a Shabbos.

Most social trends like inter-marriage, assimilation, and substance abuse tend to start outside of our own dalet amos and eventually filter into our heimishe velt. Maybe trend of unplugging will reach those choosing to keep “half-Shabbos” and filter into our own heileigah homes and schools.

In the meantime, if you’re one of those who keeps a “half-Shabbos” then remember, you’re still half-way closer to “full Shabbos”.

* A special thanks to R Yitzchok Lowenbraun and AJOP for featuring this post in their weekly newsletter.

A true win in the eyes of the non-sports fan

I am not a sports fan.

I could blame it on the environment I grew up in, since my hometown isn’t home to any professional sports teams. I was never particularly athletic, but did play some soccer when I was in elementary school. That, aside from posing as a skateboard, was the extent of my active involvement in any sports. Of course, I bike (for information about this and how to help me raise money for Chai Lifeline click here), but it’s more of a hobbie. My father a”h was an avid tennis player and golfer back in the day and he loved to watch college basketball, especially our local team, the Wichita State Shockers. We would attend many games during the season and always watch them on TV. As I got older, my interest in spending time watching games with my father dissipated, as I moved towards things like comic books, decisively counter-culture music, and Yiddishkeit.

My lack of interest in sports as an adult, you see, has nothing to do with religion or frumkeit. In fact, not being able to chime in about various sports news, scores, and game highlights is somewhat of a social damper for me especially during Kiddush on Shabbos. As I’ve posted before, my son (in 5th grade) is a huge sports fanatic. Aside from being fairly athletic (he gets this from my wife’s side of the family), he is a avid fan of professional sports. At White Sox games he has completely held his own when talking about plays with adults sitting near us and will even record games off the radio with his mp3 player so that he can listen to them if he falls asleep.

As a father I know and have seen how sports can be a “father and son” bonding thing. I make an effort to always find out the scores of games in the morning, so that I can tell him who wins and I often will be the one to give him a newsflash about when someone is traded from one team to another. My son understands that I take an active role in what interests him, even if I remain on the sidelines. Playing sports is more than just exercise, it builds teamwork, confidence, and teaches one to follow directions. As I have seen for the past few years in the little league that my son plays in, with the right role-models there are many opportunities to teach the importance of both good sportsmanship and also Kiddush Hashem (as in the real mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, which classically relates to how other Jews see you).

After a recent little league baseball game my son’s coach emailed us about a decision he made towards the end of the game. I admit, I had to read it a few times and even wiki’ed a baseball term. It seems that the coach decided, “to walk one player from the opposing team to load the bases so that there could be a force play at every base in the event that the subsequent batter put the ball in play the ball in play.” As it turns out, my son’s coach “unintentionally violated the rules by ordering an intentional walk so there would be a force play at every base when the next batter came up to bat”, as he wrote us in the email. He concluded his email, which he asked us to read to our sons, with these words:

“As I have discussed making a Kiddush Hashem with the kids over and over, I feel that I may have done just the opposite. I take full responsibility for what transpired and as the coach of the team, I am fully accountable. Please let the boys know that I am sorry that I let them down and I will try to be better in the future. As role models, we can never let our desire to win supersede our obligation to act with derech eretz and proper respect for our fellow players.”

My son’s team has a fairly good record so far this season. There will be more games won and probably a few that he will lose, but this was a true win. I hope in the years to come when he sees his father make mistakes along the way or when he, himself, makes the wrong call at some point, he will be able to look at the intellectual honesty and Torah true menschlikeit that his coach demonstrated.

Rough Drafts, Sloppy copies and Shavuos

In a discussion with my 5th grade son about a research paper he was completing I attempted to explain the importance of a rough draft, as a blueprint for what would be his final product. My 3rd grader, who was listening (and thinking her brother was getting a lecture) chimed in, “My teachers call it a sloppy copy.”

I have always enjoyed the origins of slang words/phrases that seem to make it into our general daily conversation. My fascination probably is rooted in some adolescent form of, as R Mordechai Torczyner would call it, “coolkeit”. Fortifying myself with the language of our youth makes me feel younger and it is less painful than dieting and exercising.

So, I have to wonder, when a “rough draft” start being called a “sloppy copy”?

I am not against the name change, just taken back. This is, again, an example of Niskatnu HaDoros, the diminishing of the generations. “Sloppy copy” seems so, well messy. “Rough draft” does sound abrasive, but it’s a draft. It implies putting in time and effort into making something. There is a feeling of a work ethic associated with a “rough draft”. To me a “sloppy copy” is when you photocopy something and pull the original off the copier glass at the last minute so that the far right side of your photocopy is all wavy and blurry.

Now, with any draft or copy (even this post, which had two drafts) the goal is a completed product that has a feeling of shlaymus (wholeness). The Torah, and both sets of luchos, is a perfect draft in its’ original form. No editing or revising needed. I hope I have used the past 49 days to fix up my, as the kids call it, “sloppy copy” and make myself ready to receive the Torah.

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Next time you lose it, read this

Poser, hypocrite, mussar-Marrano, wannabe.  These are few labels that linger in my head right now, regarding myself.  Assessment that one blew it is part of the risk of having “free choice”.  Like my Hoover vacuum, I just suck it up and sometimes change the bag.
I attempt to be a “good Yid”.  I make it minyan at least twice a day (working on 3 times), I think about my brachos when I make them, I learn (although not as much I should), yet I fall short.  Part of, if not the real attraction I’ve always had to Mussar is that I’m not always a nice person.  I usually keep myself in check but some days are easier than others.  I am a so-so husband and am OK Abba most of the time.  Usually I’m fairly patient with people (family included) but yesterday wasn’t one of those days.  I was a creep.  Lost it big time.  There’s not much to say or write when all of the effort you make to treat others as betzlem Elokeim seems to fly out the window when you are in a bad mood.

“I’m sorry,” only goes so far, which is why I’m thankful that I have the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuva to give me real steps, especially the whole until-you-are-in-the-same-place-and-don’t-make-the-same-mistake-you-haven’t-really-done-teshuva step.  When it come to relationships, especially with those we love, there is constant retooling and recalibration, so those opportunities to see if you really did teshuva are plenty.
I get it.  Chometz is akin to the Yetzer Hora.  So, I guess I’ve been deep frying Jason’s Flavored bread crumbs in Japanese bread crumbs and then just breaking them for the heck of it, b/c I feel like my Yetzer is on overdrive.  Time to turn of the engine and coast into the service station.
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Food for thought

Rav Elya Lopian zt’l, a product of Kelm (as in the yeshiva founded by Rav Zimcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm- a direct talmid of R Yisrael Salanter), once commented that the true measurement of a person’s middos is how he or she treats those in their own home.  He observed that often people are much nicer to strangers than to loved one in their own family.  I, so relate, because I am generally viewed as a nice person to strangers.

The reason for this is because a casual interaction with someone in a store isn’t a big deal.  It’s a one or two time relationship.  It’s not directly ongoing, nor is there much to be gained from investing time or effort into the person at the cash register (although this doesn’t free on from the obligation to make a Kiddush Hashem).  With those in your family, it a constant relationship.  That’s why it’s more difficult to keep your cool, speak pleasantly, be appreciative, and display a level of kavod haAdam.

This is something, especially in dealing with my kids, that I am constantly working on.  It’s an avodah in the real sense, because effort is involved.  There are times that I win (well my Yetzer haTov wins) and there are time that I slip and lose it.  It’s less frequent than it was, say 4 years ago, but it happens.

Once in a while I experience something and it give me a different perspective.  Last night, I placed an order for some “take out” food.  I went, picked up my order, and then came home.  When I got home and started taking out the purchased items, I realized that I was missing something.  I quickly called the establishment and asked if the item I was “missing” was meant to be included with my order.  It was.  So I asked if I could come back and pick up the item.  Of course they said, “Yes.”

I showed up and gave my name and said I had come for the part of the order that didn’t make it home. They apologized profusely and told me how sorry I was.  I told them that it really wasn’t a big deal and that I was sure they were just busy when they put the order together.

As I drove home, I realized that it didn’t really make sense that I didn’t adapt this easy going attitude at home.  Here I was, telling them “no big deal”, when I had paid for an item and didn’t receive it.  Yet, I find myself frustrated and low on patience when I ask one of my kids to pick up their dirty clothes and they choose not to. It’s not like I paid them to actually clean up their clothes.  There was no implied exchange of currently for services rendered.  There is, however, a relationship built on trust, love, respect, and appreciation. That’s really the kicker.  When working with any “volunteers” it’s imperative to appreciate what they do.  I realized that my strategy of working on patience and keeping my cool only really affects how I preceive things, or the input, not the output.

So, when I came home, I went straight into my son’s room and told him that I really to appreciate all the effort he puts into studying, school work, and I understand that after a full day of school he is sometimes too tired to even care about the state of his room.  I also told him that if he wants help pick up close, I’d be happy to assist him.  If I can be nice and understanding to the person behind the counter, then even more so, to my own family.  At least, that’s the plan.

What to think about when your kids are chutzpadik

Graphic from here

I have noticed over the past year that my children, well the oldest (10 and 8) are now showing a sense of confindence when they talk back.  At first I chalked it up to a “phase” that my son (10) and daughter (8) were going through.  BH, our little one (4) hasn’t quite picked up on this mode of behavior.  However, a phase is usually short lived, this isn’t.  Don’t me wrong, my kids are good, loving, sensitive kids.  They just figured out that they can talk back and exercise their free choice to do so, while at times being less than respectful to others.
I was that way back in my youth.  Of course, this didn’t happen until I was about 14 or 15.

It’s not just what they say, it’s how they say it.  Often times, we will tell them thing like, “How can you say that in a nice way” or “How would you respond if someone spoke to you the way you are talking now?”

I think I will just have to accept their acts of chutzpah as par for the course.  Of course, their words do not go unnoticed nor do do they “get away” with how they speak to others.  There is a cause and effect and they are learning to understand that.  However, I am left wondering, if being chutzpadik might be derech ha’tevah?  Sort like gravity, built into the way of the world.

This line of thinking is based on what I recently was reminded of while reading In All Your Ways by R Yaakov Meir Shechter.  He quotes the gemara at the end of Sotah (49b), that says:
“In the footsteps of Moshiach, chutzpah (insolence) will increase and kavod (honor) will decrease.”

If I am to believe that Moshiach can come today (or any day), then why not simply accept chutzpah for what it is, a sign that the Geulah is coming.