Category Archives: humor

Straight from the Laugh Factory in Vilna…

One day in Vilna he [Rabbi Israel Salanter] was seen discussing trivialities with a Vilna resident, even trying to amuse him by telling jokes.  Passers by were astonished.  They knew very well that R. Israel weighed his words very carefully and would not utted a superfluous syllable.  Yet here he was engaging in idle chatter and apparently joking without any restraint.  At an opportune moment one of his disciples asked him the reason for his unusual behavior on that occasion.  R. Israel answered that the person with whom he had been seen was in a depressed state of mind, and that there was no greater act of chessed [kindess] than to cheer up a downcast human being and revive his spirits.

He would also adopt this same attituted to his own family.  Whenever anyone became downhearted, he would recall amusing episodes of his life to allay their anxieties and make them happy. (Told by his aged granddaughter, Chana Leah Rogovin) – From Tenuas Hamussar (The Mussar Movement) by R Dov Katz

Image created here.

Getting the band (that I don’t have) back together

Summer 1990

Recently I’ve been wanting to acquire two things.  Both are probably due to what is termed a “mid-life crisis” (my Hebrew birthday was the 21st of Kislev and will be falling out in a few days) and attempting to recapture my youth.  First, I am ready to start driving a “Smokey and the Bandit” Trans Am and I want to start sporting a goatee, instead of my short beard.  It’s high time that I shake things up with my image.

Just kidding. Now I’ll be serious.

Firstly I’ve been thinking about growing my bangs out.  I had rockin’ bangs in the late 80s and I think that it’d feel younger with something hanging down over my forehead.  It really won’t happen because I have no interest in that “in between” stage of waiting for bangs (been there, grown that).

Secondly, as I’ve jokingly told my wife and a few friends, been think of getting the band back together.  Of course, that would be the band that I never had.  Two days before Chanukka I felt an urge to buy a guitar and start taking lessons.  I, once upon at time, from first through fourth grade played guitar.  Due to a geographic move I wasn’t able to continue.  At the suggestion of a good friend I decided to sit on this urge and see if it’s a real desire or just a fleeting idea.  I’m still sitting.  However, the initial catalyst is that I know that it shows a lack of middos on my part to just sit and complain about not finding J-music that I like and I’d rather be pro-active and just make my own.  There are a nice amount of frum musicians in Chicago and if motivated I’m sure I could cold call a few and ask if they want to join my band that I don’t have.  Then we could play the music I have in my head and the seven odd songs that I haven’t written yet (but know the pasukim/phrases that would make up the lyrics).  I would convince my closest friend here to play drums and I would sing, maybe strum guitar (if I take lessons), or play my instrument of choice…the slide whistle.

It’s the perfect time in my life to start a band. My kids are still young enough that I can play for a while, get it out of my system and still not tarnish my family’s image when it comes to future shidduchim. I have a few ideas for band names:

Shelaymus (refering to perfection & a reference to mussar)
Vytair (Yiddish for continue)
The Noise Kloiz (a Klotz was another name for a shul/sheibel that like-minded people belonged to)
Husker Nu (a pun on Husker Du)
Hispa’alus (literally “with energy and passion”, a method of mussar study innovated by R Y Salanter invovling repeating phrases in a melody and invovling your whole body)
Oi Vaad (a play on words of the Canadian metal band named Voivod and also a reference to Mussar vaadim)
Derech Eretz (way of the world, good manners)
Novordorock (play on words of the Novordok school of mussar and their network of 70+ yeshivos)

Ok, these are only ideas. Nothing is set in stone.  Speaking of which, I was thinking about “Even Shelayma” as a band name, since it has that “rock” thing (and is also the name of a sefer containing idea’s by the GRA), but it’s to similar to Evën Sh’siyah.  I can totally see the band that I don’t have performing at the Chicago Jewish Music festival (held every three years) or even playing a gig at someone’s Purim seudah.  Of course all merch for band would be available from and I could even make some bumperstickes that say:  If you don’t like my driving then go against the system and purchase a song by the band (fill in name of band here) on iTunes.
While the music would be rather fast paced with emphasis on base, guitar, and drums with catchy harmonies, the pasukim and lyrics would resonate with the thinking Jew (or the Jew who isn’t even aware that they need to be thinking) that wishes to be passionate about their Avodah and relationship with Hashem and those around them. I don’t think any tracks would be vehicles for kiruv (like Journeys’ “Conversation in the Womb”), but you never know. I sort of imagine songs that you would want to crank up when driving in the snow during carpool, yet melodic enough that you can slow them down and sing them as niggunim at the Shabbos table or after havdalah, to start out the week pumped and ready for action. Maybe I’ll even start singing a little this week after havdalah. I always tell my son a short short mussar idea, usually from R Yisrael Salanter, so to add a niggun for another 30 seconds couldn’t hurt.
I don’t think the band would be invited to any gigs in day schools, since our music wouldn’t sound traditionally Jewish (unless we sang acapella, then anything goes). I also don’t think we would make a video and put it on You Tube, I’ll leave that for the Maccabeats and other boy bands who would have more universal appeal. For sure we would not get booked for late night talk shows or multi-day music festivals, since Mattisyahu seems to have that covered quite well and affectively (I might add).

We’ll probably only play in someone’s basement or the social hall of a shul somewhere. Maybe if we get a following (as in people related to those in the band) we could even get booked at a local restaurant. That would be super-sweet, especially if I can work out arrangements for the band to get unlimited Coke or Diet Mountain Dew. I guess that when the band that I don’t have finally forms and starts playing, then we will only have one true way to see if we’ve made it. The true tell-all sign of our success will be if we get banned and an article appears on Yeshiva World News, Matzav, and VIN about how our music is an affront to Emunas HaChamim and listening to us is far worse than not allowing internet in your home (but letting your teens have a cell phone with unsupervised web access).

Is it a dream? Probably.

I’ll add it to my current dream list:
Health for my family
Financial Security
Writing for my Nineteen Letters blog again
Starting two mussar vaadim in Chicago (one for those already observant and one for those who are currently non-observant)
Taking my son to a Piamenta concert
Helping my children reach their potential and feel fulfilled
A long and happy life with my wife
Getting the band (that I don’t have) back together

Mussar and the art of skateboard maintenance

Yeah, I know , I’m well a wear that I’m ripping off the title of the “most widely read philosophy book, ever”.  But a good title is a good title.

All of the part of a skateboard are important, yet they function interdependantly. If you enjoy using your board then you’ll want to keep up with maintenance. Those things we really care about we try to keep functioning as best as possible, if you don’t it will be bad news. If you don’t, for example, tighten the trucks of your skateboard then the board itself will be really loose when you ride. If your grip-tape rips or gets wet, you need to replace it, or you will have trouble staying on your board. If your wheels get worn down, then you can’t skate.  If you don’t maintain your board it’s a good sign that you are not to interested in skateboarding. 

Now, you can have best skateboard in the world, but if you don’t practice then it’s only nothing more than a stage prop. Even Tony Hawk (a professional skateboarder) can’t do a trick or even skate without having a board beneath his feet.  So part of maintenance is practice and part is actually having the board.

What’s the ‘how’ of maintenance when it comes to Yiddishkeit? That’s the question we all are asking.  For me, maintenance is connected to motivation. I think, idealy, it comes from both external and internal sources. You have to want to skateboard, but you also need the skateboard. In regard to my Yiddishkeit, it’s almost the same.

I can have all the gear: Yarmulke, tzitzis, kosher kitchen, etc but if I’m not motivated, then these are ‘stage props’. I can have the strongest desire to attach myself to Hashem and plan to sit an learn but without engaging in Mitzvos and Limud Torah, this desire isn’t actualized.

I wish there was an easy answer, but each person is different. If you were born into a family that is Torah observant then there must have a point when you realized, “Wow, I’m so blessed to live a life of Torah and Mitzvos”. If you were not raised within a Torah observant framework there had to have been some point in your life that you thought, “This is beautiful and it makes sense. I want this life of observance”.

That could be your point of motivation and urge to engage in maintenance. As the title of this post suggests, for me that point was when I first started learning about how to work Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom and Bein Adam L’Chavero. The emphasis on this within Yiddishkeit is what “Wows” me (this was not the initial attraction for me however. I had been observant for about 3 years before I actually read any mussar. That’s for another posting).

Find what excites you.  For some else it could be Shabbos, davening, chessed, the laws of Lashon Hara, Chassidus, Halacha, Gemora, lighting candles, the laws of family purity, Chumash, etc. Each of us has that one thing that, at one point, got us up in the morning. Somewhere along the way we just forgot what it was.

Keep all parts in tip top shape.  Just like all the parts of a skateboard are important so is a balance between the many aspects of observant life:  davening, mitzvos, learning, yom tov, nevel vasser, kavod habrios, tzedaka, etc.

Use it or lose it.  For me, this what seems to work, is to simply go back and see what excited me.  There is, I will admit, a great thrill and rush when you find a smooth stip of concrete and push off on your skateboard and let your own power and phsyics propel you.  That thrill is only an echo of what true Avodah should be and can be.

At a shopping mall near you: The Mussar Kisok

A few weeks ago I went to a big shopping mall in a suburb of Chicago with my family. Among the many kiosks there I found a “Kabbalah Kiosk”. Like any given kiosk you see in a mall these days, this one was run by several citizens from Israel who had come to America to attempt to make some money.
This one has lots of charms, mezzuzah covers, earrings, necklesses, rings, pictures, ect depicting things like the Ten Sefirot, several Hebrew phrases, and other such Kabbalah items (although they didn’t sell these albums). The young adults selling the items were from Tel Aviv and Yerushalyim, both of them seemed nice. After walking away I thought of that article in the Forward, titled “The Path of the Just: Is Mussar the new Kabbalah?”.
Would there ever be such a thing as a “Mussar Kiosk” in a shopping mall? I doubt it, but if there was, then the kiosk would probably be very hard to find in the mall, as most Baalei Mussar tended to stay away from the spot-light and not reveal themselves. It would be in a place that you might have to walk past once or twice before noticing it.
They would most likely sell all of the products from the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, such as bookmarks, posters, tapes and cds.
You would be able to by cool things like micro-sized copies of Mesillas Yesharim and Orchos Tzadikim with keychains attached to them. Or even MP3s and ebooks of Mussar seforim.
You could buy jewlery with silver blades of grass attached to them to remind your wifes and daughters 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)
They might have small “Tefillin mirrors” with the words “Mussar starts here” printed on them.
Paperweights that look like buckets of water to remind people the story about when the Chofetz Chaim was a boy and while other kids thought it would be funny to freeze the water in the buckets for the local water carrier, young Yisrael Meir would empty the buckets as chessed to the water carrier.
Hot coffee and latkes would be available to remind visitors that when Rav Dessler was little boy he use to get up early on Shabbos to learn with his Rebbe before davening. His mother would have hot coffee and tasty latkes (probably small cakes) waiting for him when he got out of bed. While the ikar of getting up was to learn, he himself writes that because of what his mother had waiting for he, he “got out of bed quicker”. This was an example of “Sh’lo lishma, bo lishma”.
They would, for sure, sell the trash can that I have dreamed about, based on the awesome trash cans they had in the Alter of Kelm’s Talmud Torah. These trash cans were designed to be very narrow at the bottom and wide at the top (sort of like an inverted cone). If you were not careful in how you put your trash into it, it would tip over. They were designed to teach the talmidim that each action, even throwing garbage away, has an effect.
You could buy bumperstickers that would say: “I break for Midos Tovos”, “Bein Adom L’Chavero on board”, “If I’m driving to slow, then you might want to work on your Savlanut”, “My other car is a Beis HaMussar”, “Honk if you did Teshuva”, and “If I’m driving too fast, it’s becuase I’m working on the midah of Zerizus”.
Again, I doubt if items a kiosk like this would ever end up in a mall, but I’d love to work there and I’d be smiling big time if someone came over to ask if we sold hammers, as a reference to this Mussar exercise.