My summer of mainstreaming

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It was pointed out very clearly to me in the beginning of the summer that I am not so “mainstream”.  What this really means, I still am trying to figure out, but I took it to imply that even though I might go to minyan, learn some, dress in a way that doesn’t draw too much attention to myself, look enough like everyone else on Shabbos Kodesh, I am, never the less, not so mainstream.  

So, I decided that this would be my summer of mainstreaming.  I tried, really, I did.  Away went the printouts that I would bring to shul in my tallis bag on Shabbos Kodesh.  I only learned seforim that could be bought on Amazon (BH, A Simple Jew’s sefer is available there), I stopped quoting sources that are not available in Artscroll translations, I only listened to music that Nahum Segal would play, I only ate foods from recipes in the “Kosher By Design” series, I didn’t eat salmon (because they swim upstream), and I only attempted to only use references that most people would get.

It has been, and still is, a challenge to be “mainstream’.  I’m just not a “top 40” type of guy.  I never was.  It has nothing to do with being b’davka counter-culture or anti-establishment.  I tried.  Even at the Siyum HaShas in Chicago, I found myself sitting next to a yid I didn’t know and I really tried to be just like everyone else and not get sucked into “stranger danger”, but I couldn’t hold out.  I had to say, “Hi, my name is Neil.  I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight if I didn’t find out your name. There’s no achdus in this whole event if I leave not knowing who I was sitting next to.”

Truth be told, most of those that I admire were not mainstream.  They went against the grain of their times:  Reb Nachman of Breslov, Rav Yisrael Salanter (and his talmidim), Rav Hirsch, Rav Dessler, Rav Shimon Schwab, Rav Moshe Weinberger.  Each gadol b’Torah has his own derech and machshavos that set him apart from those within his generation.  That’s just the Torah way.

In my contemplation about the importance of being mainstream, I kept on thinking of this teaching, related by Rav Shlomo Friefeld zt’l,  as printed in the book In Search of Greatness, (on page 14) quoting the Midrash, that “explains why Avraham was called Avraham the Ivri.  What is an Ivri?  The Midrash says that the term Ivri come from the word ever, which means a side.  It is often used for a riverbank.  Every river has two sides, this riverbank and the opposite one.  Avraham was called Avraham the Ivri, the “sider,” or one who stood on the side.  What does that mean?  The Gemara says that Avraham stood on one side and the entire world stood on the other.  He had his beliefs, and the entire world was opposed to them.

I know, in my heart of hearts that the kuntz of being mainstream is that you are able to have a voice of individuality that is accepted by the majority of the kehillah.  That being written, I will end with two quotes to ponder.  One, from my copy of the Hirsch Siddur and the other from my very non-mainstream print-out of an article in Tradition. 

“Hillel would say: Do not separate yourself from the community.” 
Rav Hirsch zt’l: It is not to the individual, but to the community, Morasha Kellios Yaakov, that God entrusted His Torah as an inheritance for all the generations to come. For this reason every individual is duty bound to join forces with his community in thought, in word and in deed and loyally to share in its tasks and obligations, so long as that community proves to be a faithful guardian and supporter of the Torah. Indeed, it is essential in the discharge of his own life’s task that the individual be part of a larger community. For whatever he may be able to do on his own is inadequate and short-lived; it is only in conjunction with the achievements of others that his own actions can have importance.  Moreover, his good principles and convictions will gain considerable strength and support from the fact that he hold them in common with the whole of a genuinely Jewish community.

Rav Soloveitchik zt’l from “The Community”
The presonalistic unity and reality of a community, such as Knesset Israel, is due to the philosophy of existential complementary of individuals belonging to Knesset Israel.  The individuals belonging to the community compliment one another existentially.  Each individual possesses something unique, rare, which is unknown to the others; each individual has a unique message to communicate, a special color to add to the communal spectrum.  Hence, when lonely man joins the community, he adds a new dimension to the community awareness.  He contributes something which no one else could have contributed.  He enriches the community existentially; he is irreplaceable.  Judaism has always looked upon the individual as if he were a little world (microcosm); with the death of the individual, this little world come to an end.  A vacuum which other individuals cannot fill is left.

12 thoughts on “My summer of mainstreaming

  1. Leib ben Baruch

    As baalei tshuva, we will never be mainstream! by the very fact that we made a choice, not just to mekabel mitzvos, but to also integrate and make peace with our slave days. We like Avraham avinu are counterculture. Since we have the sensitivity to things that are not “mainstream” it is our tachlis to integrate and make peace with that point, where it is noticeable and support others in their own avoda.
    The community, like a band or an orchestra will play our music in the most beautiful way when we are each playing our own part of the bigger symphony. May Hashem help us to be patient, supportive and bsimcha play the song of clal Yisrael.

  2. Reuven Boshnack

    Dear Neil,
    There is no mainstream. It’s all a lie. Who started any of that stuff? R Freifeld liked a certain picture of a shul- because no one was doing the same thing. He often quoted Shakespeare- This above all else- to thine own self be true. Our Yiddishkeit deals with the reality of our situation. Otherwise it’s someone else’s Yiddishkeit. and as R Freifeld said about living in someone else’s yiddishkeit “I believe that would be unhealthy to say the least.”

    1. Anonymous


      This was funny. (I don’t really believe you tried so hard. The triviality of the actions enumerated says much about modern Conformodoxy )

      You just need to be Neil. There may be some social costs and discomfort for you and for the rest of us by you being Neil, but you and the rest of us also all gain something immeasurable, whether we recognize it or not, through you being authentic. If you (and I and we) hide or contort what is best about us so as not to stand out or make waves or get criticized or judged, then I believe we’re failing at our life mission. Uour friendliness, your broad-mindedness,the richness of your pre and post Orthodox experiences, your passion for music… are all valuable



    2. Neil Harris


      Thanks for the comment. It’s funny b/c my wife has been telling me that I just can’t be mainstream. I tried to get her to define the term, but adda rabba, she would only tell me the things I do that are NOT mainstream.

      Hashem doesn’t want robots. However, we are part of a kehillah and I think that is key. Staying within the greater community is very important.

      Like attracts like. Those who are not mainstream tend to hang out with others like themselves, thus creating a non-mainstream “norm”. It’s like my high school life. I was totally part of this hardcore punk/alternative sub-culture. We all thought, looked, and listened to music that wasn’t what “everyone” else listened to. We created our own community, well it was called a “scene” back then.

      However, most of us dressed in the same monochrome black, listened to the same genre of music, and all read the same “free thinking” books. So we were all mainstream (this is similar to what Reuven was commenting about).

      When I think about my frum friends, most are against the grain in some aspect. As Reb Moishe Bane said in this shiur:

      Either you are anti-establishment or you are corporate in terms of how you chose to help Klal Yisrael. We need both types.

  3. Anonymous

    Sometimes an individual is both types, Neil. And while the vast majority live fully like the latter (corporate)I believe they have a distinct and valuable inner person that they’re squelching. The first type which you describe as “anti-establishment” I would prefer to not define in terms of opposition, although reactionism may well be the primary orientation for many of these individuals, but at least for myself, I’ve never defined myself by what I’m not or by who others are or who they think I am. I am who I am. And the way I think and feel isn’t defined by not-conforming, but for trying to represent in my life my inner understanding of truth and the complexity of truth as I honestly perceive it. And this means I can likely never fully be “Orthodox” if Orthodox means being a robot, and for the majority, it clearly does. (the literal definition of orthodox is “right thinking” but for me right thinking” can’t possibly mean that there’s only one way to think, and alas, contemporary Orthodox seems to hold this.

    I generally try to avoid “I am” statements such as “I am an Orthodox Jew”, or “I am a vegan” or “I am a writer.” The only existentially primary categories are “earthling”, “human”, “man”, “Jew” and (debatably) American. I can say I strive to practice Judaism, I can say that I eat 100% vegan 99% of the time (which is not a satisfactory statement to those who i identify as vegan. But “vegan” is a man-made hypothesis/doctrine, albeit one that i believe represents a very high ethical level of truth, but it can become a falsely totalizing identity because it tends to reduce complexity and contradictions into a model or map that doesn’t wholly and accurately represent the nature of existence, or human existence in general, or individual existence -as does, I believe, the term “Orthodox Jew.” I can say things like I believe homeschooling is the ideal way to educate most children most of the time. I can say that because I always think critically, neither Republicans or Democrats, nor any other political party accurately represents what I understand to be good and true ethically or politically. And I continue to think critically about Orthodoxy, America, Israel, religion, and even civilization itself, as there is so much that is corrupt and destructive and wrong about all these things as they are: and yet this doesn’t prevent me from affiliating with these umbrella categories because I go by what seems more likely to be true and what pragmatically works better than the other options, and when there’s no other choice, with what appears to be the least wrong, and the least evil. Like you said about Avraham, one needs to be able to stand alone against the world, or the subset of the world one is in: one does need a community, and a community requires systems that work to reconcile differences, and commonly agreed upon procedures and broad tenets of belief, but it also needs to allow for legitimate differences of sincerely held and well-considered opinion and practice, and recognize that Socrates doesn’t need to be killed, and Rambam doesn’t need to be excommunicated, and BT’s don’t need to think, dress, walk, talk like everyone else.

  4. Anonymous

    Rabbi David Cardozzo puts it this way, in a very provocative article (at ” The question we now need to ask is how to bring Judaism back to its original authentic “self” in which the halakhic tradition of “elu ve-elu,” is once more recognized and applied. Can we reactivate this concept in order to bring new life into the bloodstream of Judaism for those young people who are in dire need? Surely the principle of “elu ve-elu” is not a blank check that anything goes. The principle should only be implemented if it will stimulate greater commitment to Jewish religious life while simultaneously responding to the many drastic changes which have taken place in our modern world. The need for human autonomy as well as spirituality and meaning which are sought by so many young people will have to be addressed.

    We must realize that Judaism is an autonomous way of life. While the need for conformity within the community must constantly be taken into consideration, ultimately one is expected to respond as an individual to the Torah’s demands. Each human being is an entire world, and no two human beings are identical in their psychological make up, religious needs or experience of God. One can only encounter God as an individual. What, after all, is the purpose of my existence if not to relate to God differently from my neighbor? To imitate what others do in their service of God is to demonstrate that there is no reason for me to have been born. The overwhelming need for human distinctiveness is demonstrated by the fact that no Jew received the Torah or heard the voice of God at Sinai in a similar way, as the Maharshal observed. The need for more halakhic autonomy is not for the sole purpose of adapting Judaism to the spirit of modern times, but also to make Judaism more authentic and true to its own spirit. While the necessity for communal conformity often made it difficult for Judaism to emphasize the need for personal autonomy, the difficulty experienced by so many young people today may propel this matter to the forefront of our concern.”

  5. Bob Miller

    Every person, thing and event is unique, but to live we have to be able to generalize and categorize within reason. Categories can help people live and work together with some common focus. Categories can be misused, too, but that’s no reason not to use them at all.


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