Am I Less Deviant Now That I’m Older?

My wife and I had the pleasure of spending an amazing Shabbos with a very close friend of mine (and his brother) from my shanna bet year in Eretz Yisroel and college days. Shabbos afternoon my friend asked me a pretty simple question:
Am I less deviant (read punk, individualistic, free-thinking, non-iconoclast, etc) than I use to be? Good question. Although, I would have expected nothing less from him.

I have often wondered the same question myself. From the time I was in high school and became frum until now, how much have I changed? In terms of how I look, its a radical change. It’s rather easy to externally blend into a frum lifestyle. I pretty much look like most people on any given weekday or Shabbos. Years ago, I stopped trying to show my individuality by what I wore on the outside. If you met me, you’d think I’m a pretty normal guy. That’s because I am.His question did get me thinking, though. Have I changed or mellowed out over the years? Probably a bit of both. The conversation with my friend reminded me of two great quotes. Both of them are from an interview with Sonic Youth in SPIN magazine that I read back in September of 1992.

“If you’re not growing, then you’re not living.”
“At times, the most conservative people or ideas are really quite radical.”

We are defined by our thoughts, speech, and actions. I’m told that the Baal HaTanya wrote about this quite a lot. We should not be stagnate. Just as we are inclined to attach ourselves to Hashem through Mitzvah observance, our natural inclination is to grow. I believe the above quotes are a more modern day versions of this:
There is no blade of grass below that does not have a malach on high that smites it and says to it: Grow! (Bereishis Rabbah 10:6-7)
Something as seemingly simple like grass has an urge to grow. Something so basic, knows that there is more to life if you reach upward.

I gave this entry a lot of thought over the past few days. I think that there us much more room for individuality when you set parameters for measurable behavior. If one “marches to their own beat” then you don’t have any way to judge just how different you are than anyone else.

As I was writing this, I thought about Parshas Korach. I must admit, I really wasn’t thinking, but remembering Rav Soloveitchik’s view of Korach, as found in REFLECTIONS OF THE RAV . The Rav states that “Korach was committed to the doctrine of religious subjectivism, which regards one’s personal feelings as primary in the religious experience. The value of the mitzvah is to be found not in its performance, but in its subjective impact upon the person.” This was how Korach thought. Rav Soloveitchik felt that “there are two levels in religious observance, the objective outer mitzvah and the subjective inner experience that accompanies it. Both the deed and the feeling constitute the total religious experience; the former without the latter is an incomplete act, an imperfect gesture. The objective act of performing the mitzvah is our starting point. The mitzvah does not depend on the emotion; rather, it induces the emotion. One’s religious inspiration and fervor are generated and guided by the mitzvah, not the reverse.”

A few months ago felt compelled to actually submit something to in reference to a list I had seen a while back. I received the following response to my submission:This message was created automatically by mail delivery software.
A message that you sent could not be delivered to one or more of its
recipients. This is a permanent error. The following address(es) failed:
mailbox is full: retry timeout exceeded

Not good news for the Jews. I was pretty bummed. So I sent the email again. Same response.
In an attempt to answer the question that became the title of this posting, I submit the following:

My additions to “Top 10 ways you know you are a JEWISH HIPSTER”:
Your Itunes Library includes: Shlomo Carlebach, Shalsheles, Husker Du, C Lanzbom, Chaim Dovid, The Yitzhak Halevi Band, Rabbis Akiva Tatz and Moshe Weinberger, Bad Religion, and the Yeshiva Boys Choir
You turn “I Wanna Be Sedated” into a niggun
You quote the Kuzari and Kerouac in the same breath

You cancel your Rolling Stone subscription and start getting the JEWISH PRESS
Your cell phone ringer is a version of “Ki Va Moed” with killer electric guitar
On Sunday afternoons you Skateboard to Mincha, because the shul parking lot is good for shreddin’
Your wife’s mini-van’s radio is preset to both news-radio and the local alternative station
Your Shabbos Hat Box is covered with band stickers

When you hear the term “hardcore” you think of Black Flag and Novorodock
Your kids share your love of all things Piamenta

If you’re reading this (and you know who you are, because you went by a different name when you were younger) thanks. It was great seeing you again.

13 thoughts on “Am I Less Deviant Now That I’m Older?

  1. Rafi G

    There is something to be said for blending in.. I heard a Rosh Yeshiva of a baal teshuva yeshiva speak once at an oneg and the theme was just this topic. He said that dressing with the hat and jacket style is really just a social issue. It identifies you with the group you are part of. WHen you dress like the rest, it allows one to blend in. Once you blend in, you can get away with a lot more (individuality) than if you did not dress the part. If you dress as part of the group, the group is more forgiving in what it lets you do, than if you do nto dress as part of them.

    I do not really like that though. I have a friend who until a couple years ago wore only bow ties. I thought it was great. he had this thing and he stuck to it despite his being a little out of the ordinary. A couple of years ago his wife pressured him to stop with the bowties and wear regular neckties (he still wears bowties on yomtov, but only then) due to concerns of getting their children into schools and being thought of as normal. He regrest stopping but stopped anyway.
    I feel it is a shame that a person cannot express himself the way he feels he should. What right do we have to limit and constrain a person in his style and inidviduality, just because we want him to look like us..

    another point. You wrote, “If you are not growing, you are not living”. I recently heard a shiur on pirkei avos in which the Rav quoted what he said is a famous saying (similar to yours), “Life is a like a bicycle. You can move forward. You can even move backwards. But you can never stand still. If you stand still you will fall over.”

  2. FrumGirl

    Yep, classic social psychology – people judge you by similarites and if you want to belong to an ‘ingroup’ you usually conform. No group of people know this more than the orthodox jews! But… no one can kill your spirit… your top ten list was very funny!

    Truth of the matter is, as you get older you realize that the need for individuality is not as important as leading a normal life without the drama… its all about maturity really.

  3. Neil Harris

    Rafi-Thanks for the words. I love the bike moshel. Very true. Before I was married and for at least the first year of marriage, I traded in my Shabbos hat for a white straw one during the summers. I loved it. When we moved out of of Queens (before coming to Chicago) several people gave my wife “the business” about it. It actually caused her a bit of grief, so I ditched it. I never thought of it so much as conforming, and more of Shalom Bayis.

    Am not sure if changing who you are to get your kids in a certain school is such a bad thing. My kids are at Arie Crown (large centralist Orthodox day school), so it’s not a problem at this stage of the game.

    Frumgirl: Frum life is mostly following social norms. As long as you know the reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s cool.

    Lakewood Venter: Dont’t worry, I only think I’m a Hipster so I won’t feel like I’ve sold out to “the Man.” 🙂

  4. My Real Name Is Joe

    I really enjoyed your post – it really got me thinking about things that I haven’t thought about in a long time.

    I believe that a big part of the formative growth process is the concept of establishing one’s own identity – which brings along with it the concept of rebellion. In order to effectively demonstrate to yourself that you are your own person, you must actively reject (or at a minimum question) the people or institutions that formed you – whether they be parents, schools, religions – whatever it is.

    All of this is really a part of finding one’s own identity. For a young person, embarking on this journey of self-actualization for the fist time, the easiest way to do this is to adopt a pre-packaged identity that’s already labeled as “alternative”, be it hipster, hip-hop, punk, post-punk or whatever. Your own identity is derived from this “community” that you have joined by virtue of listening to the right music, wearing the right clothes, and adopting whatever social mores are considered important to the group that you joined.

    As one moves into adulthood, eventually there is a realization that thoughts and ideas are the true characteristics that define a person, not clothing, music, and other external vestiges. One achieves immortality by infusing their ideas and thoughts into the culture around them, not because they owned the rare Buzzcocks import CD that none of their friends owned.

    How does this tie back to the whole concept of “fitting in”? If your priority is to actively contribute to the betterment of the world around you – the easiest way to facilitate that goal is to have the ability to deliver your message from within your target audience, not as someone standing on the outside. How many people pay attention to the guy that stands at the intersection with the sign that reads “THE END IS NEAR!!” anyway??

  5. Bari

    I’ve changed quite a bit since High School. If I would give you my real name and you would google it and see what came up, I think you’d be surprised. 🙂

  6. socialworker/frustrated mom

    Nice how you connected this to Korach. Interesting link. It’s a scary question to think about how deviant I have become. I am young and am already more deviant than when I came home from sem who knows what will be in 10 yrs from now. Good to keep in mind.

  7. David Guttmann

    Excellent post and powerfull thoughts.

    The dialectics between conforming and individuating are quite interesting. As I got older the latter took precedence but I find the urge to conform triggers the questions that are needed for further learning and growth. You have to maintain a critical sense all the time.

  8. Neil Harris

    Very true, David. IIRC, Rav Dessler has a whole piece on the Shevatim within the Machane (retaining your identity in a group). Thanks for the comments.

  9. Hermon

    Thanks for hosting me and my bro for Shabbat. I enjoyed the Shabbat too.

    The post reminded me of what I had heard from Rabbi Aharon Silver (of KBY) in the name of Rav J.B. Soloveitchik.

    Hazal teach us that we are meant to emulate Hashem, i.e. just as Hashem is merciful, so too we should be merciful etc. One of Hashem’s qualities is that he is “Echad” which is commonly translated as one. One of the meanings of the work “Echad” in this sense is “unique.” Hashem is unique, and he wants us to be unique and follow in his ways by being unique.

    Because he created us all with different characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, he expects us all to serve Him using those unique characteristics, and preserve our individuality.

    I think that we are obligated to identify our “own beat” and to march on accordingly.


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