Thursday, February 28, 2008

Yes, It's Friday on Thursday

I'm having one of "those" kinds of weeks. So yes, Friday's posting follows below even though it's only Thursday. Everyone have a healthy, safe and joyous Shabbos.

Getting What You Are Paying and Paying and Paying For

You think that wedding halls are making all their money off the food they provide for you? Think again. There are two items that that are not included in the meal price and that halls regularly charge for. First up for grabs is the chupah.

Yup, the chupah. You know, that piece of fabric attached to four poles that you stand under? Somewhere out there are people whose life ambition was to design chupahs. Some are plain vanilla velvet with an embroidered flap in the front, usually saying "Kol Soson V'kol Simcha." Some go a step further and don't just have gold-painted poles but have poles wrapped in a bit of tulle. Some have billowing mounds of tulle to give off a cloud-like effect. Some have fresh flowers intertwined on the polls and forming the front flap. Some are made completely from a blanket of flowers. One I saw was carved from wood to look like a cloud. The poles go from smooth and plain to elaborate reproductions of Roman and Greek pillars.

All the halls under frum auspices have a chupah that belongs to them, sometimes more than one, and in the NYC area even the non-frum halls keep a chupah on the premises. And for an additional fee they will even let you use it. If not, your florist can provide a chupah for you--also for a fee. So what does it cost to use the hall's chupah? How much do you have. The cheapest price I've heard of is $300 for the plain vanilla chupah--$500 is the average for this type. Anything more elaborate and the price climbs way up.

Next up are those raised platform/pillars that hold the floral centerpieces on the tables. Those, too, the hall charges for. The price runs from $25 for the simplest to you-would-not-believe for the fancier ones--you know, the glass towers with flowers and butterflies embedded in them.

Bear with me while I do the math. Let's work with the plain vanilla chupah--gilded poles and a velvet top. Let's be l'chav z'chus and say that it cost the hall $300 to buy, and that they are only going to charge you $300 to use it. And let's say that the hall "only" makes 200 weddings a year. Ready? That's a profit of of $59,700 on that itsy, bitsy chupah. Now let's take those centerpiece holders. Let's make the wedding a fairly "small" one at only 300 people. And let's put 10 people at a table. That gives us 30 tables that will need the holders. (Note: I'm not even going to count the holders used at the smorg.) Now let's say that the hall purchased the fairly nice holders for $50 each but they are giving you a bargain and are only charging you $25 for the rental. Initial cost for the holders: $1500. Your cost for one wedding: $750. Remember those 200 weddings? Profit for the flower holders at 200 weddings per year:$148,500.00. And if you choose the more "expensive looking" holders, which may have cost the hall the same $50 each? Total profit of $298, 500.

I'll be fair and say that wear and tear is going to mean replacing these two items every three years. Total initial expenditures for the two items: $2000. Three-year profit on the two items: $628, 200.00 to $955,200.00. Know of any banks that are offering this rate of return?

It actually doesn't matter what the initial cost of the items was; given the number of weddings they will be used at, the profit margin is incredible. And there are plenty of weddings where the number of guests far exceeds 300. And plenty of people who pay more to rent the elaborate chupahs.

Caterers like to say that they work on a very small profit margin--food is expensive to buy, prepare and serve. You might want to take a look, however, at all the other "hidden" extras when you are making a simcha. Things like renting a chupah that has been paid for hundreds of times over, and renting flower pedestals that are the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs.

Err, Define Gemach For Me Please?

A friend with a wedding coming up decided that she was not going to go crazy on the clothes for herself, for the kallah and for the sisters. She reasoned that going to a wedding gemach was the correct way to do things. And then she went. And then she came home in just a bit of a shock. The problem? The cost.

Now granted, clothes that have been worn before have to be cleaned before another person, particularly a stranger, can wear them again. If you return the gown uncleaned the three gemachs my friend went to charge $100 for the cleaning. (Note: my local cleaner gave me a price of $60 for a wedding gown--can you spell ripoff?)

Then there are the alterations. People aren't really one size fits all. There will need to be a nip here, a tuck there. One kallah is 5'2"--another 5'7". The hem will need to go up and down. What can alterations run? From a "paltry" $100 and up, way up.

The gowns aren't free unless you can prove you are an indigent bride with zero money. Here is where the fun part starts. What kind of gown are you looking to rent? If you want to be the first one to wear the gown, you're going to pay a premium for the pleasure. Want a gown that is up to the minute in style, that is today's look? You're going to pay for that. Don't care about the designer or who wore the dress before? You are still going to pay plenty.

So my friend found gowns in each gemach she went to that would "do" and then she added up the prices. That's when she came home. For four dresses that would be worn only once and which she would not own when the wedding was over, the cheapest price she had been given was $2200. That wasn't for designer gowns. That wasn't for being the first wearer. And that wasn't cleaning the dresses after wearing them. And that also was not petticoats for under the gowns and it wasn't for the headpiece and veil either.

Instead of the gemachs, she ended up making a few trips into New Jersey. She also visited some shops that are resale stores. She got online. In the end her purchases were a mix of new and resale. Luckily for her, her daughter didn't care about having all the clothes coordinate in color and style. Everyone got something that looked good on them. Total cost for four complete outfits by not going to a gemach? $1400, including all the petticoats, the headpiece and even the bride's shoes.

Each of the dresses has been worn at least twice since that wedding. The kallah lent her dress to a friend. Yup, the friend needed to do a little alteration, which was basically her cost for the gown. It wasn't like the first kallah was going to wear it again, after all. The kallah's mother wore the same dress to each of her daughter's weddings. And when the dresses had no more active use in this friend's family, she donated them to a gemach. A gemach that is going to charge some kallah and her siblings and her mother more than what my friend paid to begin with.

If frum people think that going to a gemach is the answer to their budgeting dreams, let them keep in mind that it could also be the start of their overspending nightmares. Don't just assume that a gemach is cheaper than other alternatives. You know what they say about people who assume things.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Note to Readers

Wednesday is shaping up to be a rather hectic day in our house. I'm putting up tomorrow's posting tonight for that reason.

If it is your custom to say tefillos for those who are undergoing surgery, then please include on Wednesday Naomi Penina bas Rochel Leah.

The Blogosphere: The Great Equalizer

Out in the "real" world, socialization pretty much runs along age-related lines. Walk into a shul and you will see the young men congregating separately, and the older men doing the same thing. Go to a wedding and who do you see at your table? Usually only those who are in your general age group. It's the same in most social cases.

About the only exception is at family gatherings held in the home. Multiple generations gather together and there is indeed some exchange between the various age groups. But usually such conversations center around what everyone is doing rather than around what everyone is thinking.

Not so in the blogosphere. Members of different generations frequently cross polinate their ideas and their thoughts. They talk, they argue, they laugh together, they protest together, they rage in indignation together. Sometimes they ask each other the hard questions--Why do you do what you do? Why did you do what you did? And like any other "family," they sometimes complain about each other.

In the "real" world we are so often pressed for time. We lead amazingly busy lives. We're happy if we just get to spend some time with the friends our own age. There doesn't seem to be the time nor the place for all the generations to mix together, to hear each other's unique viewpoints. And to tell the truth, sometimes we really don't want to talk to anyone that is "not one of us." That is a true shame.

Yes, the blog world makes up for that deficit in some ways, in many ways. Here no one worries about what sex you are, about your looks, about age. What matters is what you think and what you say. It's a shame that more of this characteristic of blogging doesn't carry over into the "real" world. Here the outside doesn't matter as much as the inside does. Wouldn't it be nice if that were the case in our "real" lives too?

Sweetbreads Please

Over the years I have attended more weddings then I can possibly count or remember. Some have been "in-town" and some out of town. Some have been small, some large and some rivalled a political nominating convention in size. Some have been simple in style and some have taken elaborate to new heights. Some were clearly inexpensive and some were even the sky is not the limit expensive. Mostly I enjoyed myself at all of them. But there has been one constant for me at all the weddings: I'd rather eat at the smorgasbord then eat the served dinner.

Smorgasbords are full of wonderful possibilities. Sometimes I find a dish I've never eaten before and I get to try something new. Sometimes an old favorite is there. Sometimes something is there which I don't get to make at home because no one else in the family will eat it so I don't bother making it just for myself--like sweetbreads. I can take just a bite's worth portion or I can go back for seconds. I get to decide what I want to eat and how much of it. And frankly, by the time people leave the smorgasbord they've already eaten a full dinner, a really full dinner.

I'm not the only person who prefers the smorgasbord to the dinner. Sometimes I look at the other women at the dinner table and watch them rearrange the food on the plate so it looks as if someone actually ate something. Sometimes they don't even bother with that ploy. Appetizers are on the table when you sit down and they leave the table in the same pristine condition that they arrived. Soup? Maybe yes, maybe no. The main course? Some people at the table have already left by the time they get around to serving it. I think two weeks ago was the first time in ages that I was still around when they got around to serving desert.

So why do people even bother with having a smorgasbord followed by a dinner? Well, you need to have a seudah so you can bentch and say sheva brochas. Tell me something--which part of the smorgasbord does not spell dinner to most people? All that is missing is washing so you can bentch.

I think that we have a solution to the mega-bucks weddings right in front of us. Eliminate the smorgasbord before the chupah and put it after the chupah to replace the dinner. It solves a million problems doing it this way. For one thing, you no longer have to spend long hours trying to figure out who will be invited to the smorg and chupah only, who to the dinner, who to the simchas choson v'kallah. Everyone you want at the wedding can be there for the whole thing. They are all mostly there at the smorg anyway so you are not adding an expense. And oh will the costs drop. If the dinner portion of the wedding runs $30 and up and the smorg portion costs $5 to $8 per person, well do the math.

People will get to eat what they want to eat instead of sitting down to a dinner that may look like a Chagall painting but is not to their taste. No longer will the seudah have to run on the caterer's wails of "the prime rib is ready now!" The focus of the wedding will return to being mesameach choson v'kallah. And the price will go down, down, down.

Years ago we went to a Bar Mitzvah that was done this way. Everyone came away from the simcha saying it was the nicest they had ever been to. We all still remember it even though the Bar Mitzvah boy already has children old enough to be in the shidduch parsha.

I like this idea well enough that I'd like to do it at my own children's weddings. Hopefully I will get mechutanim who won't give me a hard time. There are just too many pluses in changing to this method and no minuses that I can see. Everyone will get a meal that is personally tailored to what they want to eat. Weddings will not drag out for ever and ever. With no smorg before the chupah, the chupah can take place as scheduled. Guests will be able to stay for the whole wedding because the time frame will be reasonable. Dancing and being m'sameach will return as the focus. And parents will not be walking around with pinched faces wondering how they are going to pay for everything, like the two meals in one night that are customary today.

I'll be perfectly happy if this becomes the style. Just please, put the sweetbreads where I can see them.

The Lifeboat Conundrum

I imagine that many of you have seen one of the exercises in lifeboat ethics. It's a favorite in college Philosophy classes and I've even used it myself. Basically, a ship is sinking and there is only one lifeboat, which will hold only 10 people. There are 30 people on the ship. How will you choose who gets a place in the lifeboat? I don't remember ever having even two people in a class choose the same 10 people.

I bring this up now because I can see how it relates to my previous posting on the money crisis that is coming up in frum Klal. Let's say that there are 1000 institutions being funded through private donations. The economic "ship" is sinking. The "lifeboat" will only hold 300 of these institutions. Who is going to choose which institutions remain "living" and which may whither away? Based on what criteria? Will the donors make the decisions of where their money will go? Will the institutions have to fight it out among themselves? When you've spent your whole life railing against X, despising X, haranguing X, do you really suppose that X is going to vote you a seat on the lifeboat and vice versa?

Sometimes students don't take the lifeboat exercise very seriously because they are very sure that they will never have to make such a decision in real life. Frum Klal had better take the exercise very seriously, because their ship has already sprung some mega-leaks, and what was an exercise in philosophy is going to become reality in the foreseeable future. Either come up with a workable, permanent fix to the leaks now, so all the passengers get saved, or prepare to decide who will "live" and who will "die" a short piece down the road.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

We Pause for a Station Break...

Sorry, no new post today, but do feel free to browse and comment, or water your begonias or wax the piano or turn over and head back into slumber. It's Monday--enjoy!

The Rambam on Drinking on Purim

A former student, Matt, has a learning blog and is also someone I find to be a clear-headed thinker and quite capable of making the difficult easier to understand. I asked him to respond to a comment on the drinking on Purim posting. His answer to me follows as my posting. And if you'd like to see his take on other matters of learning, please go to

ProfK asked me the following question: What would the Rambam say about the type of drinking that goes on these days during Purim?

Let’s take a look at the words of the Rambam himself in his halachic magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah. Note that the question was asked about the position of the Rambam,; I will answer according to the position of the Rambam and only according to the position of the Rambam.

The Obligation to Get Drunk on Purim
The Rambam states the obligation to get drunk on Purim within the framework of the mitzvah to rejoice on Purim:
Laws of Purim 2:14-15The mitzvah of the 14th [of Adar] for villages and non-walled cities (and the 15th for walled cities) is to make these days into days of festivity and rejoicing, and sending gifts to friends and donations to the poor . . . If one makes a meal on the night of Purim, he has not fulfilled his obligation of having a Purim meal. What is the obligation of this [Purim] meal? To eat meat, to prepare a nice meal according to one's means, and to drink wine until one becomes drunk and falls asleep from drunkenness. The first thing to note is that according to the Rambam, the obligation to get drunk on Purim is part and parcel of the obligation of the Purim meal. There is no halachic justification – and certainly no mitzvah – of getting drunk outside of the context of the halachic Purim meal.

Moreover, since the Rambam clearly maintains that the mitzvah of the Purim meal cannot be fulfilled at night, and since the obligation to get drunk is nothing more than part of the obligation of having a Purim meal, it follows that there is no halachic justification for getting drunk on the night of Purim – contrary to the practice of many Jews today. We may also note that, according to the Rambam, the obligation of getting drunk at the Purim meal can only be fulfilled by drinking wine – not beer, scotch, vodka, tequila, or hard liquor of any sort. Those who become intoxicated with other types of alcohol would not fulfill their obligation according to the Rambam.
The Measure of Drunkenness
Perhaps the most important practical question to ask is: What does the Rambam mean by “drunk”? How drunk is “drunk”? The term that the Rambam uses is “shikur.” The Rambam's definition of "shikur" can be found in the Laws of Prayer, in which he discusses two levels of drunkenness: Laws of Prayer 4:17 A drunk person (“shikur”) should not pray because he lacks the requisite frame of mind (“kavana”), and if he prays, his prayer is an abomination, and he must pray again after he awakens from his drunkenness. An inebriated person (“shasui”) also should not pray, but if he prays, his prayer is considered a prayer. Who is considered “shikur” and who is considered “shasui”? A “shikur” is someone who is unable to speak before a king, whereas a “shasui” is someone who is able to speak before a king without embarrassing himself. According to the Rambam, it doesn't take much alcohol to reach the level of “shikur.” As soon as person reaches the state of drunkenness in which his inhibitions are lowered to the point where he might say something foolish, and would therefore be embarrassed to speak before a king, he has passed the threshold of “shasui” into the realm of “shikur.”

Beyond Drunkenness
At this point, one might object, saying that the Rambam doesn’t merely say that a person is obligated to become intoxicated to the level of a “shikur,” but that he must become so drunk that he loses consciousness. Some might go so far as to claim that according to the Rambam, one must become drunk to the point where he passes out.

A careful reading of the Rambam reveals that such an interpretation is merely wishful thinking. The Rambam states that one is obligated “to drink wine until one becomes drunk and falls asleep from drunkenness (ad she’yishtaker ve’yeradeim mi’shikrus).” The Rambam uses the term “yeRaDeiM,” which means “to fall into a deep sleep” (“taRDeiMah”). The meaning is clear from the Rambam’s use of the term in many other contexts, such as: “If one read the Shema while dosing off – namely, he is neither fully awake (“eir”) nor deep in sleep (“niRDaM b’sheinah”) – he has fulfilled his obligation, provided that he was awake for the first verse” (Laws of the Reading of the Shema 2:12).

If the Rambam meant that a person should become drunk until he passes out, he would have formulated the halacha differently. How do we know? Because the Rambam has a specific term for “drunkenness to the point of unconsciousness” – namely, “the drunkenness of Lote” (“shikruso shel Lote”), as the Rambam writes in the Laws of Marriage 4:18: “A betrothal (“kiddushin”) performed by a man who is drunk (“shikur”) is effective, even if he is very drunk; but if he reached the state of the drunkenness of Lote, then his betrothal is ineffective.” We know that “drunkenness of Lote” refers to drunkenness to the point unconsciousness from the Torah itself, “So they plied their father with wine on that night; and the older one came and lay with her father, and he was not aware of her lying down and of her getting up” (Genesis 19:33).
Had the Rambam meant that one is obligated to drink until he passes out, he would have said that the obligation is “to drink wine until one reaches the drunkenness of Lote and passes out.” (Incidentally, Laws of Nazir 1:12 implies that it would be impossible to have a mitzvah which required one to reach the drunkenness of Lote, since a person in such a state is not a bar mitzvos.)

Wild Drinking
Still, one might object, saying, “Perhaps the Rambam is only talking about the minimal requirement of getting drunk on Purim. Perhaps the more person drinks, the better is his mitzvah, since he is in a greater state of joy.”

The Rambam’s answer to this objection is an emphatic: “No.” In fact, he unequivocally condemns this line of reasoning in the Laws of Yom Tov: Laws of Yom Tov 6:19 When a person eats and drinks and rejoices on the festival, he should not be drawn after wine or jesting or frivolity, claiming that the more he engages in such behavior, the better is his mitzvah. For excessive drunkenness, jesting, and frivolity are not considered rejoicing ("simchah") but are considered wildness and stupidity (“holelus v'sichlus”). We were not commanded to engage in wildness and stupidity, but in the type of rejoicing which contains in it worship of the Creator of everything (“simchah she'yeish bah avodas Yotzeir ha'kol”), as it is stated, “Because you did not worship Hashem, your God, with joy and a good heart” (28:47) – from here we learn that worship of Hashem should be joyful, but it is impossible to worship Hashem in a state of jesting, frivolity, or drunkenness.

As mentioned above in the Laws of Prayer, if a person attempts to worship Hashem through prayer while drunk, his prayer is not only invalid, but it is considered an abomination. The Rambam would clearly oppose the type of drinking that goes on today. Purim is a holiday of simchah, and the Rambam is emphatic that drunken stupor is antithetical to the Torah's concept of simchah. The reason for this is that according to the Rambam, our only connection to Hashem is through our intellects, and in a state devoid of intellect (i.e. drunken stupor), it is impossible to worship Hashem. Incidentally, the Rambam would oppose the prevalent practice of getting drunk on Simchas Torah, which is explicitly prohibited in the halacha cited above. At least on Purim there is a mitzvah to get drunk - albeit within the parameters specified by halacha - but on a Yom Tov such as Simchas Torah there are absolutely no grounds for drunkenness, and a person who becomes intoxicated would be in violation of the mitzvah of rejoicing on Yom Tov.

Guarding One’s Life
Needless to say, if a person knows that he will not be able to limit his drinking to the halachic requirements, and there is a good chance that he will become excessively drunk and will endanger others and himself, it would be better for him to refrain from drinking altogether. The Rambam writes:
Laws of a Murderer and Guarding One’s Life 11:4
Regarding any stumbling block that poses a mortal danger – it is a Biblically mandated positive mitzvah to remove it and to guard ourselves from it and to be exceedingly cautious, as it is stated, “Beware for yourself, and guard your life” (Devarim 4:9). If one failed to remove such obstacles, not only has he violated the positive mitzvah, but he has transgressed the prohibition of, “You shall not place blood in your house” (ibid. 22:8).”

If failing to remove lethal hazards from one’s home constitutes a violation of these two Biblical commandments, all the more so if a person renders himself into a lethal hazard. As the Rambam writes, “regarding the mitzvos it was stated, ‘That man should do them and live by them’ (Vayikra 18:5) – and not that he should die by them” (Laws of the Foundations of Torah 5:1).

In conclusion, we see that according to the Rambam, the mitzvah of getting drunk on Purim consists of nothing more than drinking enough wine at the meal to put one to sleep. The Rambam certainly does not maintain that a person is obligated to get “crazy drunk” (or “crunk,” as they say these days). In fact, the Rambam maintains that getting trashed on Purim constitutes a failure to fulfill one’s obligation, is a major sin in its own right, and can pose a danger to one’s own life and the lives of others.

The Great Money Divide

We talk about the "frum world." When we do so we are including a whole range of practices within those two words. Even within frumkeit you begin at the left and move all the way to the right. This "frum" world maintains a huge number of mosdos of Jewish learning, both for males and for females as well as some co-ed ones. There are shuls and mikvahs that are essential. There are any number of summer camps. There are any number of tzedaka and chesed organizations that deal with a full slate of problems that can beset frum people. In short, frum Klal Yisroel has a zillion "projects." What they all have in common is a need for money. So where is that money coming from? The answer is a bit complex.

Generally, you can't give someone else any money if you have none yourself. I edited a book on tzedaka last year and one of the points was that if you are a recipient of tzedaka you are "patur" from giving tzedaka. Look around at the people you know. Lots of them have no money, certainly the ones who are supported while they are still learning. So the institutions of frum Klal aren't being supported by these people. It is not kollel yunge leit that are supporting the kollels they learn in, never mind all the other projects that need money.

Look at the parents of these learning couples. It's the norm for the parents to be supporting the children. Many of these parents are putting themselves into debt to support their children. Even partial support or "helping out" is straining limited resources. The ones who aren't going into debt are just barely making it on their own. They are not the ones who are supporting the institutions of frum klal with large infusions of cash. Even those with lots of money are finding family putting a strain on their spending habits. Add up the figures if your 5 children who each have 5 children of their own are counting on you for the "big ticket" items such as buying homes and paying yeshiva tuition. And eating.

So where is the money coming from, because it has to come from somewhere? Yes, there are right now some few individuals all the way on the right who have the kind of money that can take care of their family's needs and give generously to the needs of Klal. The key is "few." The "real" money in frum Klal is sitting in the middle ranges and the areas to the left. And it is "old money" in a very real sense. The serious money is sitting in my generation. The younger you get the less there is. Even where there is serious money in the middle generation, that generation has bought into the idea of "unlimited familial support" in far larger numbers then my generation did. More money is going to family and less to institutions.

What does this mean for the institutions of frum Klal? Yeshiva X has always counted on Grandparents Y for financial support. But grandparents Y may or may not have the same level of money as they head into the retirement-age years. Grandparents' Y children, if they have decided to adopt the lifestyle advocated by Yeshiva X, will need their parents' money to support their own children. If they haven't adopted the lifestyle then you run into another problem. Yeshiva X will have been rather vocal about pushing their lifestyle and saying that any other lifestyle is "not as good as theirs," "not as frum as theirs," "not the right way to be living." They are slowly but surely cutting themselves off from sources of funding. This is biting the hand that feeds you with a vengeance.

What will be the situation twenty years from now? If the vagaries of an economic turn down today can affect those with money and how much they can give, then how much greater will the problem be when there is less base money to begin with? If our frum institutions would like to have a future they had better start thinking of the future. If our frum communities want those institutions in the future, they had better take a hard look at how what they are doing today is going to affect that future.

Someone was a bit insensitive and told me that when my generation dies out the yerusha money will take care of the finances of the next generation. Nothing like knowing that someone is counting on you to die before they go belly up. But let me concede that point for just a moment. A well-to-do man I know has put away $25,000,000 that will go to his grandchildren upon his death. Many of those grandchildren are still very young; the others, among them, have at present 29 children and still counting. Do the math. Just how much money is that yerusha going to be earning in interest? Divide that interest by the number of people it will need to support. And do remember that all of this is pre-tax. Not a whole lot of money really. After taxes you are left with just about enough money to pay one yeshiva tuition, maybe two per grandchild/great grand child. Donations to the other institutions of Klal? Not there.

I am not anti-learning. I am very much in favor of learning. By all means let's all sit down and "learn" about how our spending habits today will affect the future.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Just How Drunk Are You?

If I had a penny for every time I've heard someone say "Oh, that doesn't apply to me. I can hold my alcohol" I'd be a billionaire to rival Bill Gates.

The link below has some excellent tables that tell you about the affects of alcohol and how to calculate them.

Scroll down on the site and see in particular the impairment affects on driving ability.

I Shot An Arrow

I've been thinking about blogs and wondering about the affect of blogs on the people "out there." Just what happens to those words we pen? What might they do to others? I was reminded of the Longfellow poem below:

I shot an arrow into the air, It fell to earth,
I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 - 1882)

I began to have my own "Longfellow" thoughts as regards blogging.

I shot some words out into space

At a fast and furious pace.

They hit some person in some place--

I know not name nor know the face.

Then words came flying back to me,

Some slow, some with alacrity.

No clue had I what would ensue

When I sent out my words to you.

I sing my song, in tune or not,

And find returned another's thought.

A choir singing different parts,

Yet all united through their hearts.

I flex my bow, an arrow fit.

I loose the string then ponder it.

Where is it that my words will go,

Now that I've shot them with my bow?

If you've an answer, please let me know.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sometimes It's the Little Things That Count

I was wondering what I was going to write my next post about when I scrolled through the comments on the retirement posting and found my answer. The comment was as follows:

"I think we spend too much time worrying about all the little things like if retirement is jewish or not when we should be looking at the larger picture. The retirement question is only a tiny part of a much bigger problem. If we would concentrate on that problem the retirement issue would go away or fix itself." Doni

Certainly Doni's perspective is not all that unusual. A lot of people agree with him that you have to see the whole, examine the whole and fix the whole. Start at the top and work your way down; start on the outside and work your way in. Fixing one flat tire won't help you if all four are flat; you still can't drive the car. Don't get me wrong; I've used this method on some problems and it has worked. But there is another approach that also works.

For me the other approach is illustrated by an old English rhyme that was often used to encourage children to look at the logical consequences of their actions, showing the possible events that could follow a single act. Many have also used it to illustrate the idea that "the devil is in the details." It's the small things that you do or don't do that can influence what kind of a "whole" you are going to have.

For Want of a Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

It is the initial action--the lack of a nail--that influences all of the other events that follow. Fixing that one part of the problem will have influence on the other problems that have followed from it. If you change something on the bottom you're going to effect change on the top as well.

It doesn't matter which particular aspect of the problems In frum Klal you start with--if you change that little part you've made a start. Let's be really honest here. No one but no one has an adequate and/or accurate picture of what frum Klal in total actually is or even who belongs in it. That,too, is one of the problems. Sometimes we don't have the knowledge or the resources to do a total overhaul. We can continue to rail at frum life in general or we can change the broken lightbulb in the bathroom and go on from there. Because if you can see in the bathroom then maybe you'll be able to replace the broken tiles. Or maybe the leaky faucet. Or the moldy shower curtain.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Take Cover! A Pre-Purim Rant

Yesterday was Purim koton, close enough to Purim to say what I'm going to say.

Some of you believe that you have seen me rant before. You believe you have seen me rail at some stupidity. I've let you live with that illusion because I don't think you could have faced what is coming soon. I give fair warning. My ire is getting fired up to mega-temperatures. I'm going to blow and yell and scream and that is only the opening act. Take cover and batten down the hatches because a storm such as you have never imagined is about to let loose its fearsome power.

"Wait!" you yell. "You promised there would be no ranting in Adar." Listen up folks, I have a heter for this rant. And yes, it involves Purim. "But you love Purim!" you wail. Yup, I do indeed love Purim, my Purim. What some people have done to Purim is where my fuse gets lit.

Some people talk about the spirit of Purim. And some addlepated nitwits are far more interested in the "spirits" of Purim. What is supposed to be a holiday has devolved into a yearly excuse for males to get sloshed, hammered, wasted and a good three sheets to the wind. The ugly truth is that they give themselves permission to become drunks.

And they're holier-than-thou drunks at that. "Ad lo Yodoh" is what they sneer at you when you protest. And where are their fathers, their rebbes, their roshei yeshiva? For the most part right there as a part of that merry little band of men set on self-destruction. I heard from a rebbe that one yeshiva a few years back issued instructions to the rebbeim of the yeshiva that when their talmidim came to see them on Purim, they should not have hard liquor on the table. Wine and beer were permitted "in moderation." Yup, that sure is going to solve the problem. Like you can't get drunk on wine and beer.

And just where the hell are the wives and mothers during all this debauchery? Mostly standing in the corners where they have been shoved by "Ad lo Yodoh" chanting males. That doesn't get them off the hook. My mother always told me regarding marriage "Pick your battles." This is one battle that every wife and mother should be picking.

The drinking starts out Purim night right after Megillah leining and doesn't stop until the next night at the parties all the boy's yeshivas have. Perfect recipe for disaster. Take a male who has fasted all day and then let him hit the liquor. Yup, that's a start. Now let's put some of those males into groups that are going to go around collecting for yeshivot and tzedaka organizations. And let's have the hosts in all the houses they go to to collect offer them a drink because "it's Purim after all." Let them go visit their rebbeim, where the refreshment is liquid. Let them go deliver shalach monos for their families and be "rewarded" with a shot of something fiery. It's only "one" shot after all. Let them sit down to a seudah at a groaning table filled with food, and filled with bottles. And then let them go over to their yeshivot to top off the day.

And hey, let's not worry about how old those males are or aren't--"dinai d'malchuso dinai" doesn't apply to drinking on Purim. So why not have teenagers who three days later will have no recollection of Purim or what they did on Purim. Imagine living long enough to see the wonders of an intoxicated 12 year old.

And for sure let's not worry about letting those inebriated louts behind the wheel of a car. What's an accident or two or three when it's Purim you are talking about. And please, don't talk to me about designated drivers or hiring a car and driver. Re the designated drivers, if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. (When wives are the designated drivers that is a different story.) Even where the driver actually never takes a drink, you think he can really concentrate when he has a car full of males who are feeling no pain? Not exactly easy to concentrate on traffic when you have a car full of boys singing shoshanas Yaakov at the top of their lungs while they clap,jump and wriggle in joy. Or when they are throwing up on themselves, the car and all the other occupants. Seatbelts? What's that?

Yup, our younger children are sure getting educated when they walk the streets in their Purim costumes and have to detour around older bochrim throwing up in some poor unsuspecting homeowner's front bushes or have to step around piles of vomit that litter the sidewalk. Yup, they sure are getting educated when excess alcohol loosens the tongues and the loshon gets to X-rated. Yup, they sure are getting educated as they watch the supposed male adults around them turning green and then with their heads buried in toilet bowls.

Just who the hell do these males think they are kidding with their religious posturing as cover for the nasty excesses of their drinking? This is the face of frum Klal that the world is supposed to see?

Wonder how they would feel about their stupidity if they had to wake up out of their drunken stupor to find out that they had killed someone? It's happened before and it will happen again unless someone, a lot of someones, pull the plug on drunk as synonymous with Purim. I had a student whose family found this out the very hard way. A teenage son, a group collecting tzedaka, a van full of inebriated males and a very bad accident. And a 14 year old and a 16 year old dead because no one had the guts to say Jews shouldn't do it this way. And oh so unfortunately this is not the only case on record. I paid a shiva call to this family and I pray to God that I should never ever have to see another mother and father looking like these parents did.

Fortunately Purim is on a Friday this year so some of the drunken revelry is going to have to be curtailed. Awww, my heart just bleeds for those poor guys who might not get to tie one on, who just might not have a three-day hangover.

It's not Purim yet but I promise you this now: I won't let up between now and then. Klal Yisroel has lots of problems that are going to require years and years before they can be fixed. Getting drunk on Purim is not one of those problems. It can be solved right here, and right now. Because women, you are going to stop being enablers and put your very considerable powers behind stopping the insanity. Yes, this is your problem too. Those of you men who don't drink at all? When you laugh at your friends' antics, when you let them do the stupid things they do then this is also your problem. And drinking men? You are going to look at what you do and finally stop hiding behind "Ad lo Yodoh." This isn't about Haman and Mordechai. This is about you. And frankly, when you put on the costume of drunkard I don't like you very much, no I don't like you at all.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On Being a Sentimentalist

Young people in the US take so many things for granted. For the most part they were born into families with both parents living and all their grandparents living. For them this is business as usual and no reason for excitement.

How I envy them. My grandparents on both sides were killed during WWII. I never got to meet them, to have the joy of snuggling in a babi's lap. As a child growing up I was so envious of anyone who did have a grandparent. But I did know my grandparents, at least in one sense. My mother was and is a grand teller of stories, and the stories she told us as children were of "in der heim," of life growing up in Europe. And the stars of those stories were my grandparents and my great grandparents and the aunts and uncles going way, way back. And we'd lap them up and ask for more. And so she told us more.

Figuring greatly in her stories was my great grandmother, the Baba Gittle. The Baba had a saying for everything that happened in life, and when a story started out with "Die Baba Gittle hot geh zokt" (The Baba Gittle said) we were all ears. My siblings and I and my cousins all have our favorite Baba Gittle sayings that have become part of the fabric of our own lives. And I cried for happy when one of my own children told a Baba Gittle story.

Sentimentalism is not something that is valued very highly today, except perhaps by some of us who are older. Sentimentalism requires that you take note of all the little details, even in everyday things, and place them in your "memory book." Sentimentalism takes nothing for granted. Sentimentalism requires that you "stop and smell the roses" today because who knows what is going to come along tomorrow.

My china closet isn't just filled with things to display. Every item in there has a history. I may not remember how much the checks were made out for by people at my wedding, but I can identify every piece I got as a gift, and can tell you about the giver. Sometimes it's these things or the sayings like my Baba's that are all that are left to you, and you cherish them for the memories they evoke.

Years ago I was invited to the chasoneh of one of my students. Her aunt and uncle were also friends of ours. I was sitting with that aunt at the chupah and we were both crying. Why? Because the last brochah under the chupah went to the kallah's great grandfather. Yes, great grandfather. Both of us looked on in awe at something we neither of us had had. The entire hall stood up during this brochah. Somehow everyone came to recognize just how rare a thing we were viewing. And I wondered to myself if the kallah had any idea of the great gift she had been blessed with. And just for a moment I felt again like that little girl who so desperately wanted grandparents to be there.

No morbidity but just a suggestion here. Grandparents don't live forever. The time to become a sentimentalist is now, while they are still here to tell all their stories and for you to listen to them. Grandparents are not a burden: they are the most precious gift you will ever receive in your whole life. Treat that gift like the exquisitely rare thing it is; cherish it and memorize all the details. And when your children or grandchildren will say "tell me a story" recount the ones that really matter. Begin your stories "Die Baba hot geh zokt."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

If There Were No Weddings What Would We Have to Talk About?

We got a wedding invitation a few days ago that still has me puzzled. There was a response card included, which clued me in that we were being invited for the "whole" wedding, not only the chupah. And yet, at the bottom of the invitation, in beautiful italic script, was this:
"All our honoured guests will be seated for the dinner." Huh? Has anyone else ever seen this before? And what does it really mean? Without this caveat printed on the invitation does that mean if I send back my response card that I am coming that I only have a chance of sitting down to eat dinner? Does this mean that only the first people who race to the tables will get seated? Please, someone explain this to me. If it helps any, this is going to be a super frummy wedding.

Retirement is Not a Jewish Concept

The idea that Jews don't "believe" in retirement has been floated on several blogs, either in the postings or in the comments.To this I can only answer, "Says who?!" As of yet no one has attempted to justify this by quoting the Gemorah, but I'm sure it is only a matter of time until someone does. So yes, I've been thinking about the idea.

Aristotle and the other great rhetors posited the idea that audience analysis was key for any speaker. If you did not know what your audience believed and held dear, if you did not know what your audience's fears and worries were, you couldn't build a speech that would reach them. What he termed pathos was a key element in any persuasive speech. So who is the audience for the idea that retirement is un-Jewish?

I looked around at all the people in my general age range, some younger and some older. I looked at my social group. Some of those people are already retired, some a few years from retirement, others in the decade before retirement becomes possible. Without exception, every one of those people believes in retirement. Not just believes in it but is actively working towards it. The "baby boomers" have become the "babi and zayde boomers" and they are looking to hang up their hats. So it isn't the "boomers" who consider retirement as a violation of Jewish principles.

I looked at the next generation after mine. Here's where things start to become murky. This generation is mostly in its 30s to mid 40s. Some of this generation have been working for years. Many work for companies with 401k plans, geared toward retirement. Others are saving for retirement using IRAs and other private financial vehicles geared towards retirement. The general expectation, certainly of my generation, is that this next generation started work at somewhere between 21-25, depending on graduate school. At around the same time young people would begin marrying. Thus, the expenses of being married and having a family would grow apace with a couple's ability to meet those expenses. Unfortunately, yes unfortunately, this is not how it happened for some pretty big slices of frum Klal, particularly the yeshivishe slice.

The "style"--yes, the word is deliberate--of having all boys sit down and learn for years arrived on the scene for this generation. Some parents bankrolled this style for their kids, some did not. Part of the style consisted of delaying secular education, making it an "if" rather than a given. Marriage was encouraged at earlier ages. Thus, in this generation, some people arrived at the point of familial expenses, such as tuition and home buying, before they had even entered the business marketplace. Their ability to pay for necessary expenses was curtailed, hampered and even non-existent. Did this change the style? Nope, a secondary style came into being--let's call it "ask daddy-ism."

We now had the unusual situation where my generation was not only supporting itself but was also being asked to support the next generation and the generation after that. People who had already paid one set of yeshiva tuitions for their own kids were now paying tuition again for their grandchildren. People who had planned and scrimped and saved to buy one house of their own were now being expected to fork over cash for all their children's home purchases. It was like being young all over again, with none of the perks.

There's another generation already out there. Some of its members are fairly young. Some are already at the point of marriage and families. And they, too, want to follow the style of sitting and learning for years. So they look to their parents for financial support. Bad move on their part. Those parents whom they are counting on are themselves still being helped out by their parents. And so the grandparents get on the merry-go-round yet once again.

There are some in my generation who would love to retire, who crave it even, but they can't. If they do, the two generations that follow them are going to be in deep financial trouble. Back when my children were young and in yeshiva the yeshiva never, ever asked who the grandparents were and what they do as part of the financial questionnaire given to parents. Today that is the norm. You can't claim to have no money to pay full tuition if your parents are working, own their own home etc.

One woman, older then I am, spoke many years ago about the things she and her husband would do when they retired. She doesn't speak of retirement any more. As she put it "Sure, my kids can't wait for me to retire. That way they won't have to pay a baby sitter any more if the wife is working. I can rotate going between all their houses, watching the kids, cleaning up, doing the laundry and the shopping and all the other things they are "too busy" to do. No thanks."

So who, really, is floating the idea of retirement as being un-Jewish? Not those who are close to retirement. It's coming from the younger generations. And it's not coming from any "halachic" sense either. It's coming from a very real panic that the gravy train is about to end its journey and pull into the station. And it's coming from yeshivot and communal organizations who long ago recognized who has the money.

And yes, the following is becoming all too common as well. Grandparents were niftar and after the shiva the children had to deal with all the details of settling financial matters. The community more or less figured that the children would receive a comfortable yerusha since the grandparents had been working their whole lives. It didn't play out that way. The children found their parents' house with a hefty mortgage outstanding, so the sale of the house yielded very little. There wasn't much if anything in savings. The children couldn't understand why there wasn't more money. Were their parents financially irresponsible? What could be the answer?

The answer? How about paying 27 yeshiva tuitions? How about 5 additional house purchases? How about supporting 6 families instead of just one? Yeah, how about that.

No, all segments of frum Klal do not buy into this way of living, but huge numbers do. And that is why this group thinks of retirement as un-Jewish. They have to think that way. Any other attitude could spell financial ruin. Me? I'm looking forward to retirement, a retirement that my husband and I have saved for and planned for. Our kids? You mean those people whom we trained to stand on their own two feet? You mean the ones for whom we paid for college and helped out with graduate school so that we could stop paying later? They will be just fine. It's the others I worry about.

Monday, February 18, 2008

What's in a Name?

Madison Avenue gurus can tell you that it doesn't matter how much money you throw at some products because the public is going to hate them no matter what. Mostly, these gurus tell you, it's because of some small, fixable problem, but no one sees it until it's too late.

Shadchanim are one of those Madison Avenue disasters, not because anything is wrong with the product, but because the name is wrong, all wrong. People look at the word "shadchan" and immediately jump from there to wedding registries and smorgasbords and happily ever after. People think "shadchan" and they also immediately think "results." And when the product doesn't deliver the expected result, we're oh so unhappy with the product.

I've decided to stop being a shadchan. I no sooner get the word out of my mouth then I can feel the antagonism rolling in over the phone line. I've been mulling over what new name to give myself. I was kind of leaning towards "relationship facilitator," but that still promised more then a shadchan can necessarily deliver. "Matrimonial developer" also promises too much. I finally settled on "introductory pre-life-style event promoter." It's the perfect Madison Avenue name: it rolls off the tongue with importance and says absolutely nothing about the product. But it does have one important aspect that is going to make life easier for me, lots easier. It says absolutely nothing about marriage.

Shadchanim don't make marriages: God does. Shadchanim are people with phone books that have some numbers in them for single people. Sometimes the shadchan--excuse me, the promoter--looks at two numbers and says "I think they should meet." Beyond that the promoter has no control, none whatsoever, over what will actually happen when those two singles get together. The promoter's job should be over as soon as Male X calls Female Y. But it isn't.

Singles, who look at dating as a vast theatrical production, have annointed the promoter as director of production. They expect the promoter to be there from "Curtain going up" to the final bow. "Actors" are notorious for being hard to handle, and the promoter is expected to have an unlimited supply of kid gloves. Should the production close before opening night, no one is going to blame the actors, or the lighting crew or the musicians or the horde of drama coaches every actor has in tow. Nope, everyone, but everyone, is going to blame the director.

But I'm not a director--read the business card. I'm in PR--I'm a promoter. My job is to get you to the audition; what you do there is strictly up to you and your fellow actors. I'm not promising you a job, just a chance.

The phone rings as I am thinking these thoughts. The voice asks "Is this the shadchan?" You can hear the belligerence building in intensity. I gently say "No it isn't" and hang up the phone. I'm feeling better by the minute. Shakespeare was oh so right when he asked "What's in a name?"

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Abracadabra Jewish-Style

"Youngsters" look at all the segulas and "omens" that seem to abound and go "Good grief!" That is, they say that when they are not quickly and furtively looking around if anyone can see them, and then indulging in the segula. B4s posted about the relationship of segulas and shidduchim here Let me go a step further and look at segulas in general.

B4s is not wrong that some of the segulas extant came about through ignorance and an attempt to control a world that was scary. There was no rationality to the segula, but then there was no seeming rationality to the world either. They fit together. But then there is this: the more "rational" we become, the more we know about the world, the more frightened we become, not less. Believing that a plague was a manifestation of the "dark humours" and knowing that it is the manifestation of a bacteria or virus does not change our reaction to that plague: we're scared witless, only now we know why we are. For many people, antibiotics act like a segula--give me one and I'll get healthy right away--even though they don't work on viruses, nor do they work on all bacteria. What is a doctor's saying "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning" if not a segula for a good night's sleep?

But I digress. The younger generation does not, in general, have any idea just how many acts of a superstitious nature have wandered around in the frum world, some of which do so "ad hayom." If you want to know what a real segula-driven world was like, talk to your grandparents. But let me give you some you may or may not have heard of to "make your day."

Havdalah. Custom that an unmarried girl should hold the havdalah lecht. When you get to "LaYehudim" how high she raised the candle was how tall her future choson would be. Women were not allowed to drink from the havdalah wine because it might cause them to grow a mustache or hair on their bodies. After havdalah was over everyone would go to the becher and dip in their fingers into the wine. You put a drop in each hand as a segula for parnoseh and a drop on each temple as a segula for wisdom and good health.

If your palms itch that is a segula that money is coming your way. According to that logic, when my husband got poison ivy all over his hands we should have become multi-billionaires. It didn't happen.

The night before a bris the "soton" tries to come to grab the baby for his evil ways. As a segula against the soton's being successful, the baby sleeps with the mohel's knife under the mattress. I first saw this one 37 years ago. When the mother saw the baby's father pulling the knife out from under the mattress she indulged in a good fit of hysterics. I believe the custom was not followed for her other sons. I sure did not follow this one. My mom says that she remembers being told that it somehow relates back to akedas Yitzchak.

Long, long before the advent of the modern state of Israel people were tying red bands around a newborn's wrist. They were also sewing red threads into children's clothing as protection for an "ayin ho'rah." The only difference between then and now is that today's red threads are "blessed" and you have to pay an arm and a leg for them.

How about mezuzot for a car as a protection for accidents? No, I'm not kidding. Someone brought us one from Israel.

How about leaving "kvitlach" in the space between the stones of the Kotel? This one has been modernized a bit. There is a web site to which you can send your kvitle and have it put at the kotel--for a price. There was also the website--I don['t know if it still exists--that advertised as bypassing the "middleman" of the kotel and just sending your kvitle directly to God.

Praying at k'vorim is not new. Kever Rochel started the whole thing centuries ago. But who has not, at least on a first trip to Israel, if not subsequent trips as well, done a k'vorim tour?

Did you know that whatever you eat on Motzai Shabbos does not add on a single extra ounce? What is eaten for Melave Malka is a mitzva and a mitzva can't cause you harm, ergo no weight gain.

Then there is the one about not sewing up anything that is on a living person. If it becomes necessary, like if a button falls off and you are not where you can strip off the piece of clothing, then the person being "sewn upon" has to hold a piece of thread in their mouth which they can pull out after the sewing is done as protection against "sewing up a person's seichel."

You know all about taking home a piece of the plate broken at a vort or at a chasoneh. It's a segula for getting married if you are single and for getting your children married off if you are a parent. Then there is mitzvah challah. For a single person it is a segula for getting married to eat a piece of the challah that the new choson makes a motzi on. But challah plays a different role as well. You give the "shpitz" of the challah (the very end piece) at a bris to a pregnant woman because it is a segula for having a boy.

A man with a pregnant wife should be given "p'sicha" in shul as a segula for an easy delivery. "P'sicha d'Nilah" guarantees an extra easy delivery.

Want to close on your new home or open a new business? It has to be on a Tuesday. That day is a segula for success in new undertakings.

And then there is my all-time favorite. I saw this one only once in my life but it left an impression. This involves something called "leshen breklach." A very elderly aunt of a friend of my mom's had come to visit on a warm summer day. She got up onto our front porch and was very woozy and looked as if she would faint. She screamed at my mother that she has to "lesh breklach." In its basic translation this means "to put crumbs on fire." I was totally flummoxed as to how this would help the faint feeling. Trust me, this has nothing to do with fire. A piece of bread is torn into small pieces and put into a full glass of water. And then comes the incantation. It begins "drei veiber shteyen of a stein" and it goes downhill from there. Makes you wonder if the classical fairy tale writers weren't eavesdropping on the frum jews. It also shocked the dickens out of me that my mother knew any of this--she came from an educated frum family and her father was entitled to be called "Herr Doktor Rabbiner." And yes, the woman did faint and she perked right up as soon as my mom went through the mumbo jumbo.

Somehow it came up at a Shabbos lunch table at a friend's house and I told this story. The woman's husband and kids all cracked up laughing. Apparently this friend is still in the habit of "leshen breklach" whenever anything untoward happens. And these are college educated people. In today's world.

Segulas and superstitions today have nothing to do with being illiterate or uneducated and a lot to do with not wanting to break the chain of "tradition," or perhaps being fearful to do so "just in case." My family really does not hold with the majority of these things, and yet there I am with a collection of broken pieces of plate. And yes, on their first day of school I made sure that my kids walked out of the door of the house with their right foot first.

Got any segulas to share? Please, be my guest.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

At least theoretically we all know that the world we live in is so large that the entire world is not in one "time zone" or even on the same calendar page. Thanks to the technology of instant communication we've all gone into that future posited by the science fiction writers: we travel through the dimensions of time and space, going forward and backwards at will.

But have you ever stopped to think about what it means to be talking to someone for whom it is tomorrow in the morning when it is still today in the evening where you are? How about the reverse? Speaking to someone for whom it is still yesterday while you are clearly in today already? It's strange to think that things can still be happening or yet to happen on a day that no longer exists for you.

With family and friends all over the globe, keeping in touch is as easy as picking up a phone or clicking with a computer mouse. We hear their voices or read their messages and we "know" that we are somehow present together. But I'm talking from your yesterday, and you are talking from my tomorrow.

This came to mind when I was thinking about a friend who shares my birthday, and yet she is always older than I am. She is halfway through our mutual birthday before it ever arrives for me.

We like to think that all our advancement has provided us with exact knowledge. Not so. The answer to "What time is it?" and "What day is it?" is now "That depends."

Strange wonders we are privileged to be a part of.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Playing By The Numbers

There's a lot of discussion about some of the "silly" things frum Jews do or believe in, particularly as regarding segulos or "good or bad omens." Some people tend to get really excited in these discussions, and feelings run high. I'm not touching this topic with a ten-foot pole. However........

When it comes to certain areas we mostly agree about some significance being there for certain things, even if we aren't sure what that significance is. In particular what comes to mind is the number 18. The word "chai" has the gematriah of 18. Many, many people give tzedaka in multiples of 18. In fact, many tzedaka organizations list on their donation forms suggested amounts that are "chai" and its multiples. In shuls where the mispallelim pay for the various kibbudim, you will frequently hear "chai" called out or "tzvei mull chai" or "drei mull chai." When I put tzedaka into the pushka before bentching lecht for shabbos or yom tov I put in multiples of chai, and I am far from the only one. When we write out a check for a wedding or bar mitzvah we give an amount that is a multiple of chai.

In the secular world there is some significance given to certain wedding anniversaries, particularly the 25th and the 50th. These are considered milestone anniversaries and are quite frequently the occasion of big parties. This is the case in the Jewish world as well. Plenty of frum people who make a big deal out of these two anniversaries.

Me, I'm thinking more in favor of the "chai" anniversary system. Okay, I'm just a tad prejudiced here. Tomorrow night it will be our 36th anniversary. And yes, I've been thinking of the significance of "tzvei mull chai" as it applies to marriage. Two lives entwined as one. "His" life and "her" life put together and lived as "their" life. And yes, after 36 years it is definitely "our" life that is being lived.

For the 18th anniversary it is "one" life, because a couple as been working hard to establish themselves as a couple with joint goals. They are having children together, buying and establishing homes together and working towards an unbreakable unity. It is "one times chai."

For the 36th anniversary you look back and see that you are two unique individuals, each with personal goals and preferences, who have nonetheless found a way to be together in all the ways that are important. You are two equal but different parts of a greater whole--"tzvei mull chai."

And for the future? God willing we should all be zocheh to see 54 years of marriage. We are going to be starting that journey now. What do I hope for in "drei mull chai"? One chai for the us that is an unbreakable unit, one chai to represent our individuality within that unit and one chai to represent the next dor, our children. At 54 years parents can see the fruit of their labors in their children and their children's children.

No superstition involved here, just a way of looking at the numbers. How will we celebrate this 36th anniversary? We'll be writing out some checks of "tzvei mull chai" to send to tzedaka. Our way of saying thank you and of sharing the gift that has been given to us. Neither my husband's parents nor mine were zocheh to this anniversary. We don't take lightly the zchus that has been given to us.

Friday, February 15, 2008

...And Then There Were None

I was taken to task by a commenter on another blog for "getting a tad too excited" about the wig store controversy. After all, what did it really matter to me? Why would I even care? Why? Read on.

The poem that follows is credited as having been written by Martin Niemoller. There is some doubt about whether he actually wrote the words, and if he wrote them, whether he wrote them in the form shown below. Whoever wrote them, I believe they give an answer to why none of us can afford to say "Let the other person do it." I believe they give an answer to "Why activism?" I believe they give an answer to why I, and many others, get a "tad excited." Substitute words like "yeshivish," "MO," "chasidish," "ashkenaz," "sephardi," and all the other labels of frum judaism and I think you'll get the point.

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me.

An Update on Oorah

In the interest of fairness, let me report the following.

I also sent off an email to the address one of the commenters provided expressing my displeasure with the questions being asked, and yes, with the url to which I had to write-- I questioned the halacha that might be involved in deciding to leave out pictures of girls and why one would do so. I mentioned that I was not personally happy with the hashkofah of an organization that would ask such questions in the way they did.

A different commenter asked why Oorah did not just go to the rabbanim who are their Torah advisors and follow what they said, rather than making a public "referendum."

I received an answer back this morning from one of the directors of Oorah. The full text is below.

"Oorah agrees with you & so do our Rabbonim. This is not a halacha question, we are thinking of accommodating those communities (chasiddish) & individuals which have a different perspective & lifestyle."

Okay, so Oorah did ask a question of those who are their Torah advisors. And they say that they are not considering removing the pictures of the girls because of any halacha, since it is not a halachic question. They are looking to expand their pool of donators to include those, as they say above, from chasiddish communities, who they clearly think will have "perspective" problems with the pictures. Then why not just limit the survey to that group? Why not get someone to poll the chasidishe communities? And if they believe, as it must be clear that they do, that pictures of little girls would be offensive to these communities, why not just eliminate any pictures of the students they service, both male and female? As several commenters mentioned, the pictures of the kids are skipped over as people go to look at the auction merchandise.

I've commented on this blog before, and on other blogs as well, that written communication is not about the writer--it's about the reader (to my lurking students--I don't just say it in class). It doesn't matter what you meant to say; it is what the reader thinks you said, believes you said, knows you said that is important.

Is Oorah guilty of anything in this? Yes. A poorly conceived and poorly thought out campaign to get some information. They didn't target their intended audience correctly, and they surely did not take into consideration what others reading the questions would think and would do. Just what have they gained if they pick up 1000 new chasidishe donors and lose 1000 donors from the other communities? The time to have thought about the possible public relations affect of their actions was before they sent out the auction catalog, not after. Knowing that they didn't intend to alienate and insult a whole bunch of people does not change the fact that they did.

Just a note: given the communal group structure of the various chasidishe communities, the simplest thing would have been to ask a straightforward question of the Rebbes of those communities. Certainly in this instance the Rebbe's answers would fairly represent the opinions of their chasidim.

Should Yeshivot be Teaching About Budgeting?

Interesting comment by sephardilady on the "This Won't Hurt at All" posting.

"However, I don't trust our day schools and Yeshivot to say what I think needs to be said."

That got me thinking. What possible objection could a yeshiva or day school have to teaching fiscal responsibility to the students? Why wouldn't they say what has to be said? Gee, duh! Suddenly hit me.

The word transparency applies here. Yeshivot and day schools in the large metropolitan areas don't publicize their spending. Quite frequently their budgets are "closed" documents with a "Need to Know" designation, and school parents aren't so designated. Boards are closed mouthed about the financial dealings of the institutions. Just maybe the schools like this would not want to teach about "real" financial responsibility and budgeting and prioritizing spending because then students and parents might just want to take a look at whether the institutions are following what they teach. (I'm leaving out the out of town places where there is only one school available locally. In general such places have to be far more open about their finances.)

And then there is the idea brought up by another commenter of "planned poverty." How can they teach the fundamentals of budgeting and of not living above your means when that just might mean that parents would start shopping around for schools that do fit into the budget? What practices that are encouraged by the yeshivas and day schools might not fit into a well-made budget? Hmmm, maybe compulsory time in Israel after high school? Maybe having young married men sit down to learn for years and years incurring debt for the couple and for the parents of that couple?

In short, what's the danger to these institutions of having informed consumers? I think sephardilady just might be on to something.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

When is Enough Enough?

Readers of this blog can be in no doubt that I do not consider shopping a hobby. Shopping is something that has to be done on occasion, so I approach it like a stealth bomber--you get in and you get out as quickly as possible. (I'm not including regular grocery shopping in this.)

Last week I finally got the time to look for a particular piece of furniture that we needed. I had in mind what I wanted, the price range I would consider, and the color and type. I grabbed my daughter and off we went. Total time, including traveling and parking, was one hour and 19 minutes, covering three stores, in a two block area. They're delivering the piece tomorrow.

A lot of my friends and my sister simply do not understand shopping like that. "What if you would have found something you would have liked better if you would have gone to more stores?" is what they all ask me. They miss the point: I like this one. I don't need to have my choice validated by looking at every piece of furniture in the tri-state area.

Comparison shopping can be an excellent idea, particularly if you don't have any idea of what is out there to buy in the item you are looking for, or how much the price of the item might be. But when does it cease to be comparison shopping and start to edge up on obsession? How many stores are enough stores to look in? Why should buying tomatoes or underwear take almost as much time as buying a house or a car?

Let's take a pair of black shoes to wear to work. You need them to be comfortable and sturdy and professional looking, whatever that is today. You have an idea of what you are willing to pay, or what is in the budget for those shoes. And if you are honest, you will admit that you are going to wear those shoes to death. This is not a purchase that is going to or has to last for a lifetime. There are thirteen shoe stores in your general vicinity. What are the chances that you won't find those black shoes in one of those stores? What are the chances that you won't find those black shoes somewhere in the first few stores you visit?

People who shop as I do are for sure going to find those shoes somewhere in the first few stores. One reason that happens is that I don't go to the stores that I know sell their products at a zillion times what I'm willing to pay, on the off chance that they are having the sale of the century and their prices will suddenly come into my range. Another is that I refuse to spend precious hours and hours on something so unimportant as one pair of shoes.

Some of my friends? They will not only hit all thirteen stores around here, but will look in New Jersey and Brooklyn and Manhattan. At the end of all their shopping they will still not have a pair of shoes but will vaguely remember the stores that had something that appealed to them and was in their price range, and they start the rigamarole all over with those stores. Eventually they will buy a pair of shoes.

Finding a place to shop in a vast metropolitan area like ours is absolutely no problem--and that is the problem. Shopping smart is not only about knowing what you can spend and knowing what the prince range for a particular object is. It's also about spending time wisely. It's about deciding how much importance an item has in the broad scheme of things, and devoting time based on that importance. It's about learning to make a decision.

Shopping begins before you ever leave your house. It should be a thinking process before it becomes a physical process. Sometimes there is research to be done. Nothing like sitting in a warm cuddly robe and fuzzy slippers with a cup of coffee in one hand and a computer mouse in the other and letting my fingers do the walking.

You think I'm over exaggerating? Let's give you four hours on a Sunday. If you're like a lot of people I know those four hours are going to turn into six and you may not actually come home with anything. Now what if planning ahead turned that four hours into 90 minutes? What could you do for yourself, for your family, with the 2-1/2 hours you saved? I know what I'm going to do. Went shopping for a gift today and found it in about half an hour. I quickly dropped by a local book store and got myself the latest book by an author I enjoy reading. And I've got the time to read that book because I didn't " spend" all my available time obsessing over finding the perfect sweatshirt for my hubby to wear out in the yard working.

It's Penny Ante But...

I once told a friend who teaches elementary school about what my husband did when our children were very young. He established home "checking accounts" for each child. We gave them an allowance that was to cover certain expenditures that they had. He taught them how to write checks. When they wanted money from their allowance funds they had to write a check to get it--and balance the checkbook afterwards. He taught them to check their balances before making a "purchase." And our kids also learned that they couldn't buy what they didn't have the money for. They learned about delayed gratification and how to save up for the "big ticket" items.

This same elementary school teacher decided to borrow our system to teach her students about the value of money and how to manage it. She set up a system whereby each student in her class would receive one nickel in "salary" each week. How or if they spent it would be up to them.

She created a catalog of items that appeal to younger children and this was her students' shopping catalog. Included were things like bubble gum and jelly beans and candy bars and apples, as well as "cool" pencils and markers and small toys. Mid range items were things like books. In the luxury part of the catalog she included some small electronic games that cost in the $5 to $10 dollar range.

When students at first complained that a nickel wasn't very much to earn that opened the way to a discussion about minimum wage jobs and what you could earn if all you had was a high school degree. The teacher then added in a way that the students could get a "raise" in salary. Completing certain projects could get them a raise. Passing the term tests in the required subjects could get them a raise, the raise depending on the mark earned on the test. Working "overtime" by doing extra book reports and such could get them more money in the week they worked it. In short, getting an education and working hard could earn them more money.

She told me that some students seemed not to be able to get out of the here and now mode of spending. Every week they spent their allowance completely. They bought a small piece of candy or a crayon. Some were satisfied with these small purchases and never complained. Others complained that all they ever seemed to be able to buy was a little thing when they really wanted something more expensive from the shopping catalog. Some children, when they got a raise in salary, spent it all each week by buying a more expensive piece of candy. A few listened to the teacher's advice and put the raise in salary into their "savings accounts."

Midway through the year there was a real dichotomy in the students' accounts. A lot of students were living paycheck to paycheck. They had nothing in savings. A few had a little bit in their savings accounts. And even fewer had a lot in their savings accounts.

The teacher felt her students were too young to fully understand the idea of credit and borrowing so she made a rule that you could not spend what you didn't have; no going into debt.

Interestingly, a few of her students figured out the value of joint purchases. If a nickel got you a piece of gum but fifteen cents got you a candy bar, some students would get together in groups of threes and buy a candy bar. Their reasoning was that even 1/3 of a candy bar each was better than just one piece of gum. Two students who were in the "saver" group still had not gotten enough saved to buy one of the electronic toys, but together they had enough, so they bought the toy and shared it. (Think of it this way--why should two next door neighbors both spend $500 each on a snow blower which is used seldomly when they could pool their money and each pay only $250?)

The teacher had one student who refused to spend anything. He worked hard for the raises and saw his salary go up but he spent nothing. He told the other children that his mother had told him it was important to "save for a rainy day." In December their area got a real gully washer of a storm and it poured for three straight days. All the other children told him that the time had come to spend--it was clearly a rainy day.

At the end of the school year the children had learned a lot about spending and saving and how to budget so you can have a little something now and a lot of something later. A few kids ended the year with nothing in their accounts. A few had a bit of savings. A few had a lot of savings. A very few never got beyond their original salary. Most had gotten a few raises. A very few were real go-getters and had raised their salaries tremendously.

One student with a lot of money saved wanted to lend some of it to a fellow student who very much wanted to make a big ticket purchase and didn't have the money. The teacher refused to allow the loan. She explained as best as she could to such young kids that the cost of borrowing money made the price of the item way more than they thought. Was it really worth it to go into debt for a toy? The two kids decided that it wasn't.

If you are a parent or planning on being one, you might want to think about using this system with your children. Our kids never found having to write a check as a problem and they learned a lot in the process. The teacher's students learned some really valuable lessons about savings and work. The time to begin is when kids are young. It's a lot harder to rein in a twenty-year-old with bad financial habits.