Monday, March 30, 2009

And the Song Plays On...

The vast majority of Jews living in the US were born here. Those who emigrated in past centuries are all long gone. The members of the Holocaust Generation that emigrated here post WWII are painfully few in number now. Their children were, for the most part, born here in the US. A few, like myself, were born in Europe, but America is where we were raised and is really the only home we have ever known. Yes, there were a few later waves of migration, notably from Russia and Iran, but those were not mass migrations from across the European continent. Certainly our children, our grandchildren and our great grandchildren are all Yankee Doodle Dandies.

Some Jews have gone back to Europe to visit family grave sites and to visit grave sites of the gedolim buried in Europe. Some have gone on heritage tours. But they have gone using American passports, backed by good old American dollars. None of them went to Europe with the idea of moving back there.

But many American Jews are still singing European "melodies," passed on from generation to generation. And these "songs" are discordant and full of sinas chinam. And for the life of me I can't figure out why.

The Jewish history books are full of the fact that the community of European Jews was not one big happy family. Even calling it a community of Jews is laughable. The divide was first geographical on a large scale: Western European Jews distrusted and plain outright hated Eastern European Jews; they thought of them as backwards, uneducated and uncultured. But that's okay, because Eastern European Jews returned the favor. They thought that Western European Jews were snobs, too acclimatized to the outside culture and not religious enough. But hey, why stop there? The Jews of any given country looked at the Jews of the other countries as being less of "everything" than they were. And no, it didn't stop there either. The enmity and distrust also extended to areas within one country. City folks looked down on country folks. Large cities were in competition to be named "the" Jewish city and threw barbs at other cities in their same country.

And this distrust and mistrust of others from different geographic areas came with the Jews who emigrated here to the States. Now maybe I could understand how this was the case for those who were immigrants, born and raised in Europe but now living here. They were adults who brought their prejudices with them. But their children? And grand children? And great grandchildren? And great great grandchildren? What possible experiential connection could these generations born in America have to the Europe of their ancestors?

Those who came here brought the European enmity with them, and consciously or unconsciously passed it on to the following generations. Many--most--spoke Yiddish, and their Yiddish was embedded with idioms and epithets that were less than complimentary to whole slews of Jews who were not from their specific geographic region. I don't except my family from having done this. I grew up "knowing" that Polish women weren't great housekeepers and cooks. That Russian men were not to be trusted as husbands because they were very free with their hands in hitting their wives. That the worst insult you could hurl at a man who wasn't acting sensibly was to call that man a "Yeki putz." Hungarians were looked at as being too much with their noses in the air and very involved in gashmius of the silver, crystal, china type. There was no country that escaped the naming.

So here it is, 2009 in the United States. And the enmity still raises its head. And for the life of me I can't understand why. At this point in time our connections to Europe are tenuous at best. Yet, so many of us still identify ourselves by saying "I'm Yeki," "I'm Hungarian," "I'm Polish" etc. News flash--we're not. Once upon a time some members of our families lived in these places, lived being the operative word. In many of these places our family members were not considered as citizenry of the country; Jews could not be official citizens with all the rights of other people living there. We are talking about Europe with its institutionalized anti-semitism. We are talking about European countries that had no problem in turning our families over to the Nazis, when they weren't "solving" their Jewish problems themselves. This was not a Europe that loved or wanted its Jews. Only in some places and at some times did they merely tolerate our presence. And no, we Jews were so many times not better to each other than the secular world was.

So why is it then that we are still singing the European enmity songs in this year and in this place? You don't think we are? You're wrong. Get actively involved in making shidduchim and you hear that song over and over. Listen to people talking when they gather together. Listen to them online. Recently LionofZion had a post entitled "Kashrut Scandals and Birkat ha-Hamah in New York (1897)." One of the people discussed in the posting was a Rabbi Wechsler, who, according to the article referenced, was born and educated in Hungary. A line in the posted article said: "“Wechsler’s activities were the first glaring examples of clear-cut fraud concerning kashrut supervision in New York” (Gastwirt, p. 83)." And what was the first comment that was made on this posting? "What can you expect from a Hungarian." I'd wager a whole lot of money on the fact being that the commenter is a born in the US Jew who has quite probably never set foot in Hungary and whose family way back when came from some other geographic area. What could possibly account for a comment like this from an American, except for the type of institutionalized sinah I've been talking about? Was it kashrut fraud that grabbed this reader's attention first? Not hardly.

The second comment was: "hmm. maybe a little follow up about klein, who was also Hungarian, and another Hungarian rav in America to connect the dots back to wechsler." And just what possible difference could it and does it make where this Rabbi Wechsler was born or where these other rabbaim were from in Europe? No difference at all, unless you are saying, consciously or unconsciously, that this was a Hungarian Jewish fraud, that something about being born in Hungary contributed to the fraud. I'll acquit Lion of intentionally trying to insult a particular group of Jews of Hungarian origin, but the end result still leaves a reader questioning the honesty, not of just one Jew in particular, but of a Hungarian Jew. This way of geographically categorizing Jews has become so ingrained that I don't think most people even realize they are doing it, which may explain but does not excuse that it is being done.

You want to know why American Jewry can't seem to unite to solve some of the problems that face us? Hashkafic differences are not the only reason, and maybe not even the main reason. We can't unite and work together because we are still caught up in a European ethno-centrism that divided us in Europe and is still doing so here. 2009 and ethnic slurs are still alive and well, and we're throwing them at each other.

There are myriad forms that ask one what ethnicity they are. I was born in Europe and I suppose I could claim a foreign ethnicity. But I never have and never will. There are only two things I use to identify myself: I am American and I am Jewish. I owe absolutely nothing to a European country, certainly not any ethnic "allegiance." Having been born in a place places me under absolutely no obligation to claim that place as anything other than the physical place I was born.

It's bad enough that we have carried the idea of geography as status-endowing to these shores--just look at the New York vs. OOT shtuss that goes on, or the Brooklyn versus the rest of the known world ridiculousness. But to still be using European places as delineators of who you are is beyond ridiculous.

It is long past time that we erase from our vocabularies and from our consciousness that where some long ago ancestors lived in Europe has any real bearing on who we are or on our lives here in the US. It is long past time that we put aside the sinah that has become institutionalized. It hurts when the goyim do it; how much more so is the hurt when we do it to ourselves.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Please, Skip This Chazakah

There are lots of things I wouldn't mind being a chazakah. Winning the lottery three plus times comes to mind. Eating a chocolate bar three different times and losing 5 pounds each time would be nice. Having the IRS owe us money three years in a row would be welcome. But this year we got a chazakah I frankly could have done without, the third time coming today.

A little while ago there was a loud bang and the computer went dead. Actually all the electricity in the house was off. What now? my hubby and I wondered exasperatedly. Out we went to see if we could spot a downed wire anywhere. What we saw totally confounded us. Across the street and down a little bit, in exactly the same spot where it had happened a few months ago, a squirrel had chewed through an electrical cable and sent the block back into the dark ages. Yuckily you could see pieces of the carcass adhering to the cable. Only this time we were really lucky. Con Ed had a work truck about 400 feet from where the squirrel committed suicide, reconnecting a different downed wire going to an individual house. They, too, had heard the bang, came down to investigate and immediately moved their truck over and put up a new cable.

To say that all of us on the block weren't happy is a gross understatement. This is the third time a squirrel has done us in in less than a year. While everyone was standing around the Con Ed crew complaining one of the crew mentioned that there is a type of super heavy weight cable that seems to deter squirrels from chewing--they get frustrated trying to chew through it and quit. But that is not the standard cable that is used, and we'd have to demonstrate real need, because that cable is more expensive than the regular cable. Helllooo, just how much more need do we need to demonstrate than three incidents? An accountant on the block was trying to explain that it wasn't cost effective for Con Ed to have to come out every two months to replace the old, chewed through cable--it would be cheaper just to replace with the heavier cable one time. The answer: "We'll file a report and if it happens again we'll put the heavier cable in---maybe."

Want to know one reason why NYC is having financial troubles? Because the City is "penny wise and pound foolish." By my reckoning our next chewed line should be around Shavuous. Couldn't I just win the lottery instead?

I Can't Stand It Any Longer!

A comment on a different blog was a plea for something, anything, to get the commenter away from cleaning for Pesach. I offered some suggestions last year, and they're still applicable this year.

Friday, March 27, 2009

R' Hershel Shachter on Jewish Committment

There's some interesting discussion going on on Orthonomics about Rav Herschel Shachter's recent address in Teaneck on Halachic Issues of the Tuition Crisis. See In that address Rav Shachter repeated many times that today's generation of yeshiva and day school students is less committed to Yiddishkeit than the previous generation. Many commenters are puzzled as to why he would say this, given the huge numbers of students in attendance in yeshiva. How can a generation so steeped in Jewish learning not be committed?

My mom has a saying: "You can't compare tzitzis and matzahs." That saying applies when you are trying to compare two or more generations. There may, indeed, be many points of comparison, but it is just as likely that there are going to be more points of contrast, places where the generations differ. Simply saying that generation X is different from generation Y is not a useful statement. If you say that the circumstances for generation X are identical to the circumstances for generation Y, then you can wonder why the two generations turned out differently. But in the case that R' Shachter is talking about, his generation and today's generations, you are NOT talking about generations for whom the circumstances were or are identical.

In point of fact there are four generations that need to be looked at, and in some cases five: R' Shachter's parents' generation, R' Shachter's generation, his children's generation, his grandchildren's generation and his great grandchildren's generation. Circumstances are wholly different for those generations.

R' Shachter's parents' generation: you are speaking here about the generation that went through WWII. The Holocaust Generation found its numbers severely decimated and its lives totally interrupted and changed. Those who found themselves a new home in the US had the very real concern of trying to adjust to a new country, a new language and new rules. They had the real struggle to support themselves, to find jobs and support their family's basic needs for food and shelter. In the early years of this generation here in the US there were some yeshivas that were established. But the numbers of these yeshivas were small; there wasn't a yeshiva in every community. R' Shachter mentions that he went to public school because he wasn't allowed to go on the trolley--clearly he didn't have a yeshiva around the corner from where he was living.

As this Holocaust generation became better established it turned its attention to building up the numbers of Klal. It wanted to replicate a thriving Jewish community. It couldn't bring back to life those who were butchered in Europe, but it could produce new people to guarantee that Yiddishkeit would not c"v perish. One of the hallmarks of this generation was its push to send children to yeshiva, not just boys after high school, but all children beginning from first grade. This was actually a "radical" new idea on the part of the Holocaust generation. Such schools were not the case in Europe. Children had to attend the secular schools in the morning hours by dictate of the various governments. Jewish education was handled, and for the boys only, through attendance at a cheder in the afternoon or with private and semi-private lessons with a melamed at home. Many boys did not get even this much Jewish education. Girls got no formal Jewish education. Sorah Shneirer as a program for girls first arose close to the onset of WWII. The frum Jews of this generation looked at the American idea of universal education and tweaked it to include a Jewish education as well. But again, not all the children of this generation received a yeshiva education beginning with first grade.

Now to Rav Shachter's generation. His generation received the benefit of its parents' hard work. They were, many of them, recipients of a yeshiva education. Even those who may not have had this education saw the benefit of it. If they weren't in a yeshiva setting for elementary school many did receive a Jewish cheder education and a Jewish high school education. What was inculcated into Rav Shachter's generation was the idea that every Jewish child should have a Jewish education, one way or another. Also inculcated was the idea that a full yeshiva education was the best way. When Rav Shachter's generation started having children they were not looking, in the main, for a split education, part public school and part cheder. They sent their children to yeshivas for a full day in droves. And it is to Rav Shachter's generation that we can look for the proliferation of yeshivas in communities where they did not previously exist. It seems the mantra was: "If they can't physically come to us, we'll go to them." If Rav Shachter's parents' generation was committed to building up Jewish numbers, his generation was committed to building mosdos.

Then there is Rav Shachter's children's generation. They are the third generation from the Holocaust. For most of them the Holocaust is an historical event. They are far less concerned and yes, less knowledgeable about how and why the yeshiva system they grew up in came to be. They didn't and don't look at the yeshiva system as anything but business as usual. Certainly in large urban centers of Judaism the exception became children attending public schools rather than the rule. And during their growing up years more and more yeshivas came into being. This is understandable. No longer newbie immigrants, the Jews of the US felt freer to reestablish some of the competitiveness that had been rampant in Europe pre-war, to establish boundaries with "us" on one side and "them" on the other. No longer were Jews of all stripes huddled together for mere survival. And as established Americans, the Jews bought into the consumerist ideal: if one is good, ten is better. Having just plain vanilla and chocolate was not enough: only 34 flavors would do.

Next there is Rav Shachter's grandchildren's generation. There seems to be no doubt that this generation will for sure go to yeshiva. Except where there is doubt. Because money has raised its ugly head. Rav Shachter has pointed out that melamdim today are better paid than they were in his day, that classes contain fewer students per class. This comes at a price, a very high price, a price that many people today find they are unable to pay. And that is one very real difference between Rav Shachter's generation and the generations that follow him. What he sees as a lack of committment on the part of students in yeshivas today is not a question of committment per se: it is a lack of money to carry out a vision of committment. These children and their parents may want what previous generations have had--a yeshiva education--but they find they cannot sustain the system they inherited. Some have posited the idea that the educational system grew too large, too fragmented, to continue as it is. Today many grandparents find themselves paying yeshiva tuitions for a second generation. But that, too, is not the answer, because how will their children, the grandparents of the next generation that has already started to pop up, be able to do so?

I have mentioned before that when my oldest started yeshiva I was paying $300 a year in tuition. That was in a time period where a $16K salary a year would allow you to buy a house and pay tuition and live like a human being. Today yeshiva tuitions are 20,30 and 40 times as much as when I started out. But salaries have not gone up by that same 20,30 and 40 times. It is not that today's generations are not as committed as previous generations; it is that financial reality has raised its head, and this generation is faced with rethinking the education model and trying to find options that will allow them to afford to give their children a Jewish education.

If Rav Shachter believes that his generation's way is the only way to provide a Jewish education to our children then, yes, he will see today's generations as being less committed than his. But he is comparing tzitzis and matzahs: what is facing today's generations is not necessarily what his generation faced. In addition, today's generations are reaping some of the problems that were planted by previous generations that believed in rampant growth of the Jewish educational system. Today's generations are committed to Yiddishkeit and to Jewish education, but their view is being tempered by the financial realities that they also face.

There's a saying that one should "cut their suit to suit their cloth." One needs to live on what one has. The yeshiva system is in need of tailoring to "fit the cloth" available today. Rav Shachter is still thinking of when multi-yarded ballgowns were the style: today's economic realities require "mini skirt" thinking.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Blessing on Inanimate Objects of the Cleaning Variety

I note the petirah, without regret, of one of my inanimate objects. It was the right time, coming so close to a yom tov, and frankly, I didn't like this particular object very much. I am referring to the demise of my vacuum cleaner. I didn't choose this particular machine--I was gifted with it--and we were never destined to become close friends. For one thing, I live in a two-story house and shlepping this particular machine up and down requires the muscles of a Mr. World finalist. What man--and it surely was a man--thought up a machine that is unwieldy and weighs a ton, where the only way to turn it on requires bending into the shape of a pretzel and which makes a lot of noise while doing very little? So I really don't mind that the inanimate kaporah for this yom tov was the vacuum cleaner.

But as I was shopping for another vacuum cleaner today I was looking around in amazement at the items that are for sale that are labor saving devices. I was particularly cognizant of these items because a lot online has been said about cleaning--occupational hazard this time of year. And among the comments that have come out are some that still have me shaking my head. These comments not only glorified and romanticized cleaning but cleaning the "good old-fashioned way"--on hands and knees. Our mothers weren't "spoiled" by having cleaning help and all those "unnecessary" cleaning implements. Our mothers "took pride" in their cleaning efforts. Oh equine excrement! That most of these comments are coming from males is somewhat understandable--much easier to romanticize that which you have never had to indulge in. A few, however, have been from females. One comment a while ago was from someone who still has her grandmother's wash board and uses it. Gimme a break!

My mom, one of those from that generation that so "venerated" cleaning, has a totally different take on that cleaning that had to be done on hands and knees. To be honest, she and her late sister are what we might kindly call "clean freaks." My mom's house is spotless and yes, you probably could drink out of the toilets in her house. I asked her about why cleaning was such a big deal for her generation, particularly the European members of it. She gave me an awfully strange look.

First, as mom put it, if you didn't clean, and clean every day, you were going to be buried in dirt, icky dirt. A lot of Jews in Europe lived in villages rather than large towns. There were some paved streets there and an awful lot of dirt pathways. People were constantly bringing this dirt in on their shoes. Now take a look at their heating and cooking equipment. You are talking here open hearth fireplaces and coal and wood fed stoves. Fine coverings of ash were commonplace unless you were diligent and cleaned constantly. Washing machines? Not even thought of. Running water and tons of indoor sinks? Maybe, if you were wealthy you might have a sink in your kitchen with a connection to a well--cold water only. But for bulk water usage you were taking buckets to the well and shlepping them indoors. Mops and detergents and spray bottles and steel wool pads? Surely you jest.

Frankly, the situation in the big cities was only marginally better. Those "fancy" stoves we all take for granted now didn't exist, and coal and wood ash dust were common even in the big cities. Nope, no hot water from any faucets there either--when you needed hot water you boiled it up on the top of the stove--the one you had to shovel coal into.

Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, these women didn't have to worry about cleaning bathrooms--they didn't exist as we know them today. Can you say outhouse?

I'll spare you the agony of how any carpets that may have been in some of the wealthier homes were cleaned. The poorer people didn't have them so those women were spared that chore.

And let me digress for just a second here: Europe has always had a servant class. Having a maid was not all that unusual for those who were comfortably situated or just plain middle of the road, and yes, there were plenty of Jews who qualified. Read that again--plenty of our grandmothers had regular household cleaning help and laundry help. The idea of having someone to help clean is not an invention of the "spoiled" frummies with money here in America.

My mom is super thankful for each and every invention that has come out that makes life easier in keeping a house clean. She doesn't dream of going back to using lye--and there were no rubber gloves--and shmattes to clean a floor. The only place she ever wants to see coal again is in the dictionary. That cleanliness is next to Godliness she will agree with, but she will also point out that the posuk about "working by the sweat of your brow" was aimed at men--women got the bearing children in "discomfort."

I'm with my mom on this. If it's going to save me time that I can use for other things, especially things that I'd rather be doing, bring it on. If it's going to be saving me from sore and achy muscles, bring it on. If it's going to clean and disinfect without eating the skin away on my hands and my knees, then bring it on. Just please, don't talk to me about pride and scrubbing on hands and knees in the same sentence. Yes, pre-war women had a right to be proud of themselves for managing to keep filth at bay, even if it cost them mightily. And I very much doubt that many of them miss the "joys" of that back breaking labor.

You might want to also consider this: the lifespan of women pre-war was nowhere near what it is today. Sure, real improvements in maternity procedures and in pre-natal nutrition have helped. But don't discount the fact that not having to be a household "beast of burden" is also one of the reasons for our increased longevity.

I am always flummoxed when I read of someone who requires her household help to wash the floors on hands on knees, as if this were the only way to get them clean. Hellooooo, look at the calendar--it's 2009, not 1909. Welcome to the 21st Century, and let freedom from drudgery reign.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Philosophy and Cleaning

We don't normally put together Philosophy and Cleaning; however, there are any number of cleaning gurus who have quite seriously pondered the philosophy of cleaning. There seem to be three basic schools of philosophical thought on the subject.

The first school argues that when cleaning, real cleaning--not just a wipe and a promise--is incorporated into our lives as a basic tenet of living then there is no reason for periodic bursts of "take the house apart" fever. In this philosophy one does not look at a closet or window and say "I'll have to put that on my list for later": these philosophers recommend the "see it, do it" approach. In this school there is no serious bout of Spring Cleaning Fever.

The second and third schools have a different philosophy: in these schools it is the approach to cleaning that needs to be changed. The second school has a "similar object" orientation: similar or identical tasks should all be done at once. For these philosophers you do not decide to clean only the window in the kitchen: you clean all the windows in the house. They believe that working in this way allows one to develop a rhythm that carries you through the work faster. The more windows you wash, the quicker you become and the more efficient you become. All your supplies for this chore are available. And when you are done, you are really done.

The third school is a part to whole philosophy. It posits that doing only one item in a room and moving on leaves one with a sense of incompleteness. The recommendation of this school is to pick a room and clean it completely. When you move one from that room you are truly finished with it.

By the way, lest you think I am joking, there are any number of "Cleaning bibles" that have been published, earning their authors a nice penny.

I'm not recommending any particular philosophy except to say that whatever methodology you use, stick to it. Constantly changing your approach results in a lot of aggravation and a lot of missed areas that you are going to have to get to eventually anyway.

What all these schools of philosophy of cleaning miss, however, is that sometimes cleaning is not only about cleaning. I call it the pack rat philosophy. Let me give you an example. You decide to clean out your desk drawers. Simple, no? "All" you need to do is empty everything out, dust the drawers and put everything back in. Wrong! You're going to stop as things come out of the drawers. You may ask yourself, "What are all these things?" You're going to take each item and look at it. And then you find that paper you wrote for English class way back when you were a sophomore in college. And you're going to read it. And you're going to stop for a few moments while you think about the student who sat next to you in that class who was so artistic and you'll wonder if that student ever did anything with his talent. And then you're going to "lovingly" put that paper back into the desk drawer, even though you have no idea what three-quarters of the paper really means anymore, and besides, you hated the instructor. But hey, that's part of your history in that paper.

And heaven help you if those desk drawers also contain things like your old report cards that your mom saved for you beginning with nursery school. And truly heaven help you if those drawers also contain your children's report cards, and the mothers day card your now strapping 6'1" son made for you when he was 5, and a birthday card from a long ago friend that you haven't seen in 25 years. You start reading and two hours pass in a second.

And then there is the pencil drawer of that desk. Ever notice just how many pens and pencils our houses contain? Like rabbits, they seem to multiply in droves. We take them out, clean the drawer, and then what? Perhaps we admit that there might be a tad too many in the drawer and start thinking of where we could donate the extras to, but that's for another day, so they go back in the drawer. And sometimes--Gasp!--we actually throw out some of these items. My youngest is 32, so how is it that we still own so many of those brightly colored school rulers? And why do I still have enough colored markers to outfit a small yeshiva? And then there is the huge tin of crayons. Can you say Hello Kitty stickers? And Peanuts stationery? And that collection of postcards from every place we've ever visited or our friends ever visited?

Let me only briefly mention that closets can be even worse than desk drawers. You know what I'm talking about here. The shoes on the bottom of the closet that are out of style but they match that great suit that you last wore in 1987, and hey, they may come into style again. And then there is the outfit you wore to your sheva brochos which is still in perfect condition, if only you were still that size and if only that style were at all wearable today.

This year I refuse to let sentimentality and reminiscing derail my cleaning, at least for the most part. So far 7 large garbage bags of our past have found new homes, either at thrift shops,donated to organizations that can use the material or in the trash. I was spurred on to get rid of this stuff not in small part by a comment that someone made to me. She said: "Do you really want your grandchildren looking at your old report cards when you die and they have to clean out your things?" Hopefully that won't happen for quite a while, but I got her drift. If what we keep says a lot about who we are, then there are some things I'd really rather were not said about me.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Avenue J-Walk

There is a terrific irony in my having moved out of Brooklyn as fast as could be managed many years ago and my having spent most of my adult teaching life teaching in Brooklyn. "You know where the action is at" is how a friend put it. Oh, that I didn't have that action! Navigating the streets of Brooklyn takes more nerve, verve and sheer guts than I apparently have any more. Yes, Brooklyn gives you what you can't get anywhere else, and yesterday it almost gave it to me--yesterday I came the closest I hope EVER to come to killing someone.

If you have never travelled in a car along the length of Avenue J, save yourself nightmares and don't go. What was once a fairly sleepy city street has become a magnet for cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians. Where once there was only a stray kosher emporium there is now wall to wall frum shopping and dining. Pedestrian traffic is heavy and never ending. I avoid Avenue J like the plague and snake around through the side streets to get to work, although those side streets are far from driving heaven either, but they are better than going on J. But yesterday I got stuck and had to travel down J.

Avenue J is not a wide street. It has parking on both sides, bus stops every other block and two narrow lanes for two-way traffic. The traffic lights are never coordinated and it can take an easy 10-15 minutes to get from Ocean Parkway to E. 16th. Cars and trucks think absolutely nothing about double parking on this avenue, leaving other drivers to play the game of "thread the needle" with oncoming traffic. Getting into and out of parking spaces on the Avenue should be training for those heading to the world's combat zones. And if you have just seen someone pull into a parking space then proceed with extra caution, because that driver is going to inevitably throw open the driver's side door and emerge straight into traffic without looking and 100% with a cell phone in hand and a conversation going on. If only the vehicles were the only problem.

Strange medical fact: all the people in NYC with vision problems seem to congregate on Avenue J. They don't see when the light is green or when it is red and blithely step into street intersections without looking. They cross in the middle of the street, darting out between cars and trucks. Apparently they have never heard of the rule that when walking on a sidewalk, keep to the right. And here is the real kicker: every one of these people is carrying a cell phone closely held to their ear, concentrating mightily on what Tante Chaya said to Uncle Chaim.

You know who the worst offenders are? The mothers with young children in tow, although "tow" may be too optimistic for what goes on. Take one mother and 3-4 children. Who is holding onto mommy's hand? For starters, mommy has only one hand available, the other clasped tightly around her cell phone. There may or may not be a youngster holding the other hand. The rest of the kids are snaked out in a line behind mommy, except when they aren't. And that is where my nightmare began yesterday. One of those moms had her head up a different part of her anatomy yesterday. She was busy on her cell phone and made the decision to cross the Avenue. The pedestrian traffic signal was on its last blink of "don't walk" when she stepped out into traffic. She did not once turn her head to see if her kids were following right behind her. The screeching of tires was immediate as we braked heavily to avoid hitting her. But the real kicker was that her trail of little kiddies was behind her, one little one wandering off the straight path and heading straight for the moving cars. I came within a real hair's breadth of hitting what looked to be like a three year old. And then I lost it completely. While the mom, still on the phone, is yelling for her kids to get over to her, I got out of the car, marched over to her, grabbed the cell phone out of her hand and hit the off button. I also remember yelling at her that Jews are forbidden to rely on miracles. And then she suddenly seemed to notice her little one, who was busy trying to scratch at a sticker on my bumper.

Did I get an apology? What world are you living in?! Did she immediately and tearfully gather her youngsters up? Well, she did call out to the kids "I told you to stay close to me!" She finally made it across the street, as did all her little ones. And as she got on the curb at the corner she had her cell phone up to her ear again. I'm sure she was telling her friend all about the meshugenah driver who almost did her harm and who almost attacked her, and look who they are giving driver's licenses to today.

It won't solve all the driving problems on the Avenue but perhaps New York State did not go far enough with its law about not driving and using a hand held cell phone at the same time (a law, by the way, that the people in the Avenue J area have apparently never heard of): perhaps what is needed is a new law that forbids talking on the phone while walking in congested travel areas like Avenue J. When I was younger we had a phrase to describe someone we thought had less than the requisite amount of brains and seichel--we used to say that that person "couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time." Substitute "talk on a cell phone" for gum and you've got a perfect description of the Avenue J pedestrians.

I can joke about it sort of today, but yesterday could have been a real tragedy. Had that little one sped up just the tiniest bit or had my reflexes been off just the tiniest bit, I could have killed a toddler. Years back a driver on Fourteenth Avenue in Boro Park made an illegal jump across all the lanes of traffic on a red light and hit my car, where I had just made a legal left turn. Was he hurrying over to see if I was hurt? Was he anxiously assessing what damage he had done to my then 2-week old car? Was he apologetic? None of the above. First, he didn't want to give me his insurance information--"Yiddin can settle this among themselves" is what he said. Like hell. And then the kicker was when he told me that I didn't know how to drive in Brooklyn. He almost got that right, but what he should have said was that I don't like having to drive in Brooklyn.

Readers, New York has many wonderful attractions. Take my word for it--Avenue J should be crossed off of your "must see" list.

Mobilizing the Pesach Army

Talk about the cleaning madness that gets engendered in the month before Pesach and you will generally find that it is women who get mentioned in connection with that cleaning. On occasion we will hear someone suggest that children can also be involved in this undertaking. It is rare that we hear about involving husbands.

Yes, other family members can and should be involved. Everyone, regardless of age or size, has something they can contribute to the cleaning process. Think of a family as a "cleaning army" and you'll see the possibilities. An army is organized in levels, with the privates on the bottom and going up in the ranks to the five-star General. Critical jobs and organizational matters are the purview of the General; privates get the grunt work and follow the orders that come from above. If you are the General why aren't you taking advantage of the forces under your command? Everyone benefits from a clean house so it's everyone's job to get the house in that condition. Ladies, you need to stop thinking of yourself as the only one who can do the job.

Right about now someone is about to comment that a lot of the cleaning done for Pesach is totally unnecessary and is something that women bring on themselves. I'm not going to argue. But here's the thing: you can tell me from now until doomsday that the cleaning tasks can be eliminated except for the few, very few, necessary to have a kosher home for Pesach. You can point out--I've done it myself--that cleaning every nook and cranny of the house has nothing to do with halacha. You can repeat ad infinitum that women do all of this to themselves. You can talk until you are blue in the face, but you cannot escape one essential fact of reality: No man has ever praised his wife for doing only the minimum of what is required to make a home kosher for Pesach. No family member has ever come home erev yom tov and declared "Wow, I like the messy look you've created for Pesach this year!"

Do we sometimes go too far in our preparations for Pesach? I refer you to that saying about bears in the woods. Here's the thing: I'm going to do that cleaning anyway, regardless of what others tell me or even what I sometimes tell myself. How hard I have it is going to depend on how willing I am to ask for help (or even demand it if that becomes necessary). Never underestimate how much help could be available from the people living in your home. You're the General: organize your troops!

Monday, March 23, 2009

On Going Away for Pesach

A reader sent me an email in which a request was made to post about going away to a hotel for Pesach. The reader wanted to know if I felt, particularly given the financial condition of the country, that going away sends the wrong message. Shouldn't that money have been used to give tzedaka more generously to help out those in financial trouble?

Last year I had a post on this topic. I've been thinking about it and here is my conclusion, pretty much what I concluded last year. It's none of my business where someone goes for Pesach, as long as I am not being asked to pay for it.

I have no idea, and I imagine that most of my readers don't either, just precisely how much money any of my friends or family have. I'm not privy to their financial information and to their bank statements. I don't know, down to the penny, what they spend on. I don't know if they are in debt or not. I also don't have the exact figures on how much they give to tzedaka. Here's what else I mostly don't know. I don't know who is actually paying for those trips to a hotel. I know of one case where a set of grandparents, generally held to be quite well off, pay for all their children and grandchildren to join them at a hotel, so the whole family can be together. I would imagine there are other cases like this. I do know that some people work in those hotels over Pesach, in various positions, reducing the cost or eliminating it altogether.

I know there are people who for health reasons simply cannot undertake the strenuous work that Pesach requires. I know there are people whose jobs/businesses become critical in the time period right before Pesach and they literally don't have the time to make Pesach. I know there are families with mixed religious levels of observance and going to a hotel is one way they can all get together. There are older people whose strength is simply not up to the task of making Pesach. There are plenty of people without family to go to and going to a hotel allows them to be with others over the yom tov. I know that there are families who consider Pesach as their vacation together for the year--they don't go away for Pesach and then also take an expensive trip at another time. In short, people have lots of varied reasons for going to a hotel for Pesach, and there are lots of ways that they pay for it.

So, to the reader who asked, this is all I'm going to say on the subject: I don't care. I choose to stay home for Pesach; others don't. That is their business.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

On Humor

Have you ever gotten an email from someone you know passing along a "funny" story and not finding it funny in the least? Or have you ever been in a social situation where someone starts out with "This is so hilarious....," tells a story or a joke, and you find yourself wondering what could have made this person think the story was funny or appropriate? I would imagine that most blondes are sick and tired of blonde jokes, and most lawyers won't see the humor in lawyer jokes. I also would imagine that most men would not see the humor in some of the "husband" jokes that pass around, and that most women wouldn't be amused by the "wife" jokes that are out there. Prior to the national elections I was getting a lot of emails that were marked HILARIOUS in the subject line and that I found not at all funny, there being an assumption that since I know the sender I must also have the same political stance that he/she does--I didn't.

Why bring this up? A blog that I not only read regularly but enjoy had a particular title on a recent posting. I was not the only Staten Islander to respond to that title in a negative vein. In point of fact, the title miffed me greatly. We Staten Islanders have been dumped on by the rest of the City far too many times to see any humor in that dumping. Which brings me to the point of this posting. Humor is not universal in nature. What will be considered funny depends on many factors. Humor can be generational, can be gender-based, can be geographic, can be culturally determined, etc., etc. and so forth. I'm fairly certain that no one has yet to create a joke that will be universally appreciated, regardless of who you are and where you are and what you are.

The blogger on the site that had the title that miffed me responded by telling his readers that it was a JOKE--why were we all getting so bent out of shape?! Well you see, some of us didn't see the title as a joke; there was nothing of humor in it. I tell my students that when they are writing and speaking they need to keep this in mind: what does my audience need/want to hear, all of my audience?

If you're going to pass along a joke email--or write a "funny" title--you need to step away from that email for a minute and ask yourself will the reader, given the reader's life and circumstances, find the email funny? Is it possible that some of the people I'm going to send the email to will take offence? If there is any doubt on your part, don't send the email.

Note: Our President gave me another perfect example of how you realllllly need to watch out when you are saying something "funny," and ask how ALL members of the listening audience might respond. His comment linking his bowling skills and the Special Olympics, far from being seen as wry or humorous, hit large parts of his audience as offensive. Let the speaker/writer be wary.

One New Thing

I don't remember where I read it, but I read how everyone should aim to learn one new thing each and every day. It keeps the brain supple and new knowledge can always be a good thing. I was just a bit fed up with my pre-Pesach mode and I decided to take a break and play a word game. There was a new game on the site and I went to take a look. There was a safari theme to the game and in between moves they gave you some interesting facts about the animals featured. Voila! My new things for today. Allow me to share.

1. Cheetahs, unlike other large cats, can purr but they cannot roar.
2. A group of rhinoceroses is called a crash of rhinos.
3. Elephants have hearing devices in their trunk, legs and tail.
4. The cranberry gets its name from the crane
5. Otters eat 15-25% of their body weight every day
6. Each zebra has a unique stripe pattern, like a human's fingerprint
7. Lions are colorblind and cannot purr
8. A hippo can outrun a human on land, and outswim a human in the water
9. A toucan's beak is as large as its body
10. Lion babies are born spotted and lose their spots as they grow up

Okay, so now we've all learned something new today. And if we wanted to fudge a bit, we don't have to learn anything else new for another ten days.

Putting Cleaning Into Perspective

We spend an awful lot of time talking about cleaning--I suppose that it's as good a way as any to avoid actually having to do that cleaning. But my mind wandered into a different area of Pesach for a moment this morning, and I found myself gulping in reaction. Pesach lasts for 8 days; however, in most homes the kitchen is already Pesachdik at least 2 days before the chag so you can get to the cooking. So let's talk about 10 days of Pesachdik meals. Let's give you an average family for Pesach of 6 people, and let's leave any company out of the equation for a moment. 6 people times 10 days for three meals a day equals 180 servings you are going to be cooking. This does not include any snacking that will be done, and with daylight savings time in effect, with a large gap between lunchtime and dinner time, there is going to be snacking. The kids are all going to be home over chol hamoed and that means friends over to play, which equals more food that is going to be served. Now let's add in company meals. This amount can vary greatly from house to house, and from day to day. And if your company is actually staying with you then you need to count them as a family member for purposes of meals they are going to eat. And let's not forget that there are two sedorim that need special foods prepared for them, again times the number of people who will be sitting down at the seder table. Forget cleaning woes: that other "C" word--cooking--is coming up fast. And just to truly rain on your parade, all that cooking is going to result in more cleaning--those dishes don't wash themselves. And then, of course, there is that other "C" word that comes along with cooking--cost.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Few Words on Customer Service

I have mentioned before that inanimate objects have a limited life span. Some of those which reside in my house rather inconveniently commit harakiri rather than face a grim end, usually in the week before a yom tov. There are other of these objects, however, that I "euthanize" and put out of their misery.

Pillows are this type of object; so are sheets and pillowcases. They don't grow old gracefully. Anyone who has ever arisen from a poor night's sleep with a crick in their neck may have been the victim of a pillow long past its prime. Almost every pillow in the house needed replacement (having been replaced at the same time years back) and I was only waiting for a great sale to come up. JCPenney obliged and put the pillows I prefer on sale for some truly incredible prices. In addition, they sent out coupons for additional savings if you spent either $50 or $75. Why am I sharing this?

First, let me remind you that a recent posting on Delta Airlines and the plane full of luggage it lost made the point that customer service is what is going to get and keep customers. Delta didn't heed that lesson, but JCPenney surely did. As I walked in the upstairs door off the parking lot the security guard greeted me with a cheery "Good morning, and welcome to Penneys." As I proceeded further into the store a different employee also greeted me with a "welcome to Penneys" and asked if I had the coupon, but if not they had one to give me. When I got downstairs to the linen department an employee working on putting merchandise on the shelves asked if there was something she could help me with. And if I had any questions I should ask her.

Well, I gathered all those pillows together and ran into a bit of a problem: there was no way I could carry them all to the checkout desk. Before I could even look for someone to help me, an employee materialized and asked if I needed help. Further, when she saw all the pillows, she said the store would be delighted to get someone to help me out to the car with my merchandise. The cashier at the desk greeted me with a "good morning" and ended with a "thank you very much for shopping Penneys and we hope to see you again." In between she asked me if there had been anything I was looking for that I didn't find, and could she help me with that. And yes, without my asking, the cashier took care of getting someone to help carry my stuff to the car. Given the weather and just feeling grateful, I asked the employee if I could give her something for having helped me to the car--could I offer money for at least a cup of coffee? She smiled, said no thank you, and then thanked me again for having patronized the store, and she hoped I would come again. She proffered her name and told me to call on her in the store for any of my shopping needs.

Now that was customer service! Sadly, the level to which this service rose is a pretty fair indicator that the stores are hurting and are fairly desperate to get customers into their stores and opening their wallets. Yet, I can't be sorry that I was treated with courtesy by everyone from the store I had reason to speak with, and a lot of others as well. There is a recognition in the courtesy I was shown that I have choices, and if a store wants me to be a customer and spend money, then it had best treat me in a mentschliche fashion.

Now to a moral to this story. A lot has been written about the execrable service available in many frum-owned stores, particularly in the Brooklyn area. Some posters and commenters seem to feel that there is an obligation to support businesses that are frum-owned, and so they put up with rude service, non-existent service and less than stellar business practices. I believe that it is more than time that this practice is discontinued. If you are not treated with courtesy and respect as a customer, walk out without buying! There are plenty of other places you can get what you are looking for. The seller/buyer relationship should not be one-sided, with the seller as more "choshuv" than the buyer. Sellers will continue to be rude and overbearing as long as customers suffer in silence and stay as customers. If JCPenney can mobilize a huge employee force to be courteous and welcoming, then just how hard could it be to get a handful of smaller store employees to treat customers well? These stores have no incentive to change their way of doing business as long as the customers let the employees and owners walk all over them.

Here's a thought: while you are shopping for Pesach get yourself something that really will help you--a backbone. As long as you are the one who has to pay for things then you are deserving of being greeted at Moishe's Market with a cheerful "Good morning and welcome to Moishe's. Can I help you with something?" If you're not, leave!

The AIG tune sings on and on

If you are looking for something to warm you up on this cold day, take a look at the following article by Diana West. Actually, read it carefully, because it may not only warm you up but may make your blood boil.

Spring has Sprung......a Leak

New York sure knows how to celebrate the beginning of springtime. In SI at 7:11 this morning snow began falling. Frankly, I don't remember ever seeing flakes the size of the ones coming down now. The yard is completely white, the trees and their branches are wearing a snow overcoat, and our cars are going to need to be cleaned off before they can be driven. This was so NOT on my schedule for today. The real irony is that yesterday I decided to clear out my closet, and I put away the heavy winter clothes. Ditto the boots. But hey, if you can believe the weatherman--NOT!--this is all going to be over by 9:00 am and for tomorrow and Sunday the weather will be in the high 50s. What ever happened to March going out like a lamb?

Putting Things Into $$$ Perspective

I woke up early even for me and decided to take the gift time to catch up on some current events reading. I was browsing through some of the news sites online and in the comments section of an article on how tough economic times are someone relayed the following. The owner of an online game site that is fairly popular made revenues this last year of only about $20 million dollars. His after tax, after expenses share was $1 million. He was quoted as saying that he felt he put in a lot of work to "only" come away with $1 million.

Only $1 million dollars. Imagine living long enough so that I can hear someone complain about making a million dollars. For a few minutes I allowed myself to think about what my life would be like if I made $1 million dollars a year clear money. What would I do differently in my spending? Except for giving more tzedaka and creating a bunch of memorial scholarships for family members who are no longer living I couldn't think of all that much that I would do differently. There are an awful lot of societal troubles that could be alleviated with that kind of money but what is it that I don't have that $1 million dollars could bring me?

For those just starting out in life that money could bring their own home and money to pay tuition with. It could pay off debt. Okay, that takes care of about $500-600 thousand dollars in the first year, leaving $400 thousand to play with. And then what? My family can attest that I have on more than one occasion said that I would make a rotten rich person, because for me the height of luxury would be having both a milchig and a fleishig dishwasher in the kitchen, and since I have both, I already have all the luxury I lust for.

What would you do with $1 million dollars a year? Would you complain?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Reminder About Teaneck

Back in February I posted the following information. I haven't been notified that there are any changes; if you are going to the seminar I suggest you call the shul or check with Torahweb. A commenter on the original posting said that the transcript would most likely appear on Torahweb after the seminar.

*Sunday, Mar. 22
*Congregation Bnai Yeshurun - 641 West Englewood Rd.,
Teaneck, N.J.*
8:00 PM - Rav Mordechai Willig - "Perui U'revu" - How Many Children and When?
8:45 PM - Rav Hershel Schachter - Halachic Issues of the Tuition Crisis
*See the flyer at <http://www.torahweb .org/images/ yemeiIyun/ tuition-large. jpg>

Why Pesach Making Advice Doesn't Always Work

There are any number of postings that have already gone up that proffer advice on how to prepare for Pesach. Some deal strictly with the cleaning aspect, some with the shopping aspect, some with the food preparation aspect, some with the financial aspect, some with the time aspect and some with the how to stay sane aspect. As many different posters and readers as there are, that's how many different approaches there are to making Pesach. And here's a news flash that should surprise no one: there is no one method for making Pesach that is "the" method. Nonetheless, in every methodology offered there may be a thing or two that will work for you. The key is to find YOUR rhythm, your method and make it work for you.

Let's look at an example. There was a lot of online merriment and a lot of derision as well as regards a posting in Mishpacha Magazine which laid out an accelerated cleaning plan for Pesach. But I think that most of the commenters missed the point. The writer was recommending a lot of concentrated hard work interspersed with some moments of relaxation. And this was a problem just why? Maybe your personal schedule won't accommodate the kind of schedule the writer recommended, but her advice to take some time during the day and "pamper" yourself was, for me, right on the money. Does it have to be the sheitle cut that was one of her recommendations? No, if that's not your idea of relaxing. But sitting down at a table with a cup of coffee and a book might do it. Sitting down at the computer and just browsing might do it. Playing a game with your little ones just might do it. Taking a walk around the block just might do it. The point is not what was recommended as a break from cleaning but that you take that break rather than push yourself beyond exhaustion.

We all have different lives, and those lives will dictate, to a large extent, how and when we can and will prepare for Pesach. We all have different personalities and different personal needs, and those, too, will dictate our Pesach making methods. We live in homes of different sizes, with differing storage areas. We live in different parts of the country and different parts of the world. Some work full time outside of the home, some work part time outside of the home, some work part time inside the home, and some are full time stay at home moms. Some have one child at home, some have many. Some of those children are very young, some are in mixed ages, some are already older, at or nearing adult status. Some have a spouse and some don't. Some will be staying home for the entire Pesach, some will be going away for part of it, some will be going away for all of yom tov. Some will be having company coming to stay in their home, some will be having company only for some of the meals, and some will be having no company at all. Some people have the physical strength to push themselves for extended periods of time and some people don't. Some people have the mental strength to push themselves beyond what is comfortable in other circumstances, and some people don't. Some people are night owls and have no problem working in the late hours, and some people aren't.

The point here is not to push you in any one direction as regards making Pesach. What is the point is that each of us needs to give some thought to what might work for us, needs to come up with some organized approach to Pesach. Where borrowing an idea or approach will work for you, then fine, borrow away. And if the approach you have been or are using doesn't seem to be working to your benefit, then rethink the approach until you find something that does.

There's a Yiddish saying that translates as "We all end up sitting down to the Seder at the same time." The point of the saying is that the end goal is the important one; how we get there is a matter of personal choice. My only piece of advice at this point? If you haven't got a plan for making Pesach, get one! Beyond that, good luck!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Munchkins Did It

If you have little ones in the house I'm not going to be telling you anything new: they hide things in strange places. If an adult takes a snack and can't finish it, he/she usually takes it back to the kitchen to put away for another time. Not so the munchkins among us. They seem to take delight in finding a "safe place" to store their edible treasures, particularly if they don't want their brothers or sisters to find them. Sometimes this is deliberate and sometimes they just put away their edibles wherever they happen to find themselves.

There's a lot of talk that some of the things that we clean for Pesach have nothing to do with making Pesach and everything to do with obsessive Spring Cleaning. A commentor elsewhere said: "Dust is not chometz." Well, he was right, and he was wrong. If you have munchkins in the house then he was for sure wrong.

Scene: many years back and I am preparing to turn and vacuum out all the mattresses in the house. I know, I know--nothing to do with being kosher for Pesach. our room, between the mattress and the box springs my grumbling husband, commandeered into helping me, discovered a stash of Cheerios. No, I'm not a secret Cheerios addict. But that space was just the right height for one of my little ones who, in passing by, put away a stash for later. And yes, we found similar stashes between two other sets of mattresses.

Over the years I have found cookies squirreled away in desk and dresser drawers, and pretzel sticks tucked in between the towels in the linen closet. I have found stray cookies in kids' coat pockets. And yes, I once found a complete lunch that one child obviously didn't like and didn't eat tucked high up on a shelf. Please don't even ask what kind of chometz horrors came to light when I dismantled the couch to vacuum it out.

Yes, as the kids grew older it got somewhat better. But when a seasoned balabusta says it's time to vacuum out the mattresses before Pesach, you might want to lay off the "You don't have to do that" advice, especially if there are munchkins in the house.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cleaning is [not always] a Dirty Word

Yup, it's that time of year again. Hanging on to Purim memories doesn't get rid of the fact that Pesach is coming. Why is it that two holidays, both starting with P, garner such different reactions from us? It's not that there is no work involved in making Purim--there is. But somehow, when putting one day of festivities up against the 8 days of Pesach, those responsible for bringing in Pesach find themselves with extreme cases of the kvetchies. Mentioning the P word brings on heart tremors and the beginning of a month-long migraine. I'll venture to say that it is not the thought of cooking for 8 days that causes the major reaction: after all, Sukkos also lasts those 8 days and we don't see communal terror then. Okay, there is more shopping to be done, but still not enough to cause massive panic. So what is it that is giving us the willies? In a word--CLEANING!!!! Now let's be realistic here: cleaning is something that takes place all year long. I know of no one (thankfully) who only cleans their kitchen/bathroom/every other room only once a year. In truth, we all end up cleaning something in our homes every day. No one packs up their cleaning supplies with the Pesach dishes and only brings them out once a year. So why is this cleaning different from all other cleanings from a whole year? Truth time: it's different because we make it different, not because of any halacha that says it's different. Eleven months a year we live guilt-free about the condition of the bottom of a closet that is tucked away in a corner of the house. Eleven months we spend guilt free about the condition of all those hidden nooks and crannies throughout the house. Eleven months we take our time and do what we can when we can when it comes to "extra" cleaning. And then comes the month before Pesach. Suddenly we become frenetic. A neighbor spends the day after Purim turning the pockets inside out of every coat and jacket in the house. She washes everything that is machine washable and sends the rest to the cleaners. All this in the name of Pesach. Another friend moves every single appliance out from its place and washes and vacuums the area behind it. When I asked, just out of curiosity, if she had ever found any chometz behind her dryer or washer, she curtly answered that that was not the point: that chometz COULD have been there. I don't exempt myself from this madness. As I mentioned before, I wash the kitchen ceiling before Pesach. I refuse to believe that there is some genetic time bomb in frum people that is programmed to go off in the month before Pesach, so what is it that turns us into cleaning machines for Pesach? Yes, I've heard of Spring Cleaning Fever, and lots of women who are not frum catch that bug. But apparently we frummies get that disease differently from others. Last time I checked, spring lasts for three months. We, however, get a malicious version of the bug that lasts for only one month but is three times as intense. Doctors have opined that we also make the disease and its symptoms much worse than it needs to be. This year I'm trying out a new vaccine that has been developed for the pre-Pesach cleaning madness. The vaccine is posited on a behavior modification approach. According to the manufacturer of the vaccine all that is necessary for light cases is to swallow one dose while staring into a mirror and repeating the word "NO" ten times. The manufacturer recommends that users follow this procedure 4 times a day to start. There is a warning on the label that says under no circumstances should the user, looking into that mirror, suddenly reach for glass cleaner and a shmate and clean the mirror. The researchers who brought us this vaccine also recommend that we practice "list amendment" as part of the treatment. This involves taking your cleaning to do list and a brightly colored pen and striking off one item from the list every four hours. I'm not sure how well this "treatment" is going to work: I'm sitting and reading all the instructions for how to clean less side by side with making and adding to my cleaning lists. I did read one thing though that caught my eye and has been bouncing around my head: a lot of the cleaning we do for Pesach has nothing to do with dirt and everything to do with self-image. It's not enough for us that our homes be hygienic; they have to "sparkle like new." It's not enough that the visible to the eye portions of the house look "clean": for us "clean" refers to the unseen but tended to nonetheless. It has somehow become a matter of pride that we arrive at the Seder night looking and feeling like wrung-out dishrags. And let's be honest here: should we encounter any woman in the weeks before Pesach who looks well rested and unharried we become suspicious of how "kosher" her home is going to be. It's not enough that we have become infected with the cleaning bug: we need everyone else to become so infected as well. My doctor and I have been working out an additional treatment plan. He realizes that eradicating the cleaning bug is not going to be done easily. Right now he has only asked me to take one task and remove it from my list. He only had to administer oxygen to me twice when he told me this. I've spent all day deciding which task to remove, but remove it I did, and I'm so proud of myself. I've decided not to thoroughly clean out my linen closet this year. My doctor beamed when I told him this: "It's a start" he said. On the way home from my treatment I was busy jotting down things to do on my list. The list began "Move the blankets from the bottom of the linen closet to the top shelf." Next was "Check any dish towels that are getting grungy and make shmattes out of them." This was followed by "Rearrange towel shelves now that there is more room." Hey, I'm not fudging on what I told the doctor: moving, checking and rearranging is NOT cleaning! To all of you fellow sufferers of the cleaning bug I can only offer this: we lived through this virus last year--we'll do so again this year. Take heart: this month only seems like it will last forever.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Rich, Poor and Inbetween

Bear with me a moment while I state the obvious: some people have more money than other people do. This is an incontrovertible fact of life, but it is not a new fact: there has always been a difference between people as regards to how much money they have. You don't have to like the fact, but a fact it is.

There are any number of reasons to account for this fact. Some jobs pay more than others, giving the job holder more money. Some people may be more educated and this helps to increase their monetary income. Some people seem to be more "gifted" in finding ways to increase their money. They may be smarter investors than others are. They may work harder than others do. And yes, some people just seem to be "luckier" than others. Some people have better money handling skills than others do, allowing them to keep more of the money they make. Some people come from wealthy families that give them "unearned" money, putting them ahead of others. Where you live and how you live can also affect how much money you have. But whatever reasons you give for the discrepancy for the amount of money people have, the discrepancy exists.

So, where am I going with this? Just hang in there. When I was growing up my parents always told us "Kik nisht arein in yenem's teller"--don't look at someone else's plate. The message was two-fold: first, don't be envious or disparaging of what someone else has and second, your only business should be what is on your plate. These are lessons that far too many people today ignore.

Today we seem to have a perverted kind of "equality syndrome" going on, with its main symptom of "entitlement." We are not just looking at everyone else's plate: we look and declare that we are entitled to everything that is on those plates. If person X makes a wedding that is large and lavish we look to that wedding as being the goal for everyone. That person X has the money to make that wedding without going into debt we ignore. "No fair!" we cry. That person Y sends all their children to camp for the summer becomes what we all want and have to have, never mind that person Y has the money to do so and we don't. That person Z remodels their house and puts in a top of the line kitchen, that person W drives a new and expensive car, that person Q takes vacations a few times a year, that person P has regular household help, that person M buys designer clothing etc., etc., etc. we take as what we are also entitled to. And we are wrong, dead wrong.

We spend so much time decrying the cost of being frum that we have lost track of the fact that being frum doesn't cost as much as we think it does. Sure, some kosher products and services cost more than those equivalent products and services that are not kosher. And many don't. In too many cases we are substituting the "I wants" for the "this is all that is needed." And we are doing so because somebody else is spending more than we have to spend, somebody else has more money than we do.

To those who are wealthy I say congrats and do what you want to with the money that is yours. To those who don't have that wealth, well so what? It's not fair you say? There is no fairness involved here, just plain fact. Let's keep in mind that all mankind is not equal when it comes to money and skills and talent. Many of the problems we have in Klal don't need rabbinic decrees to solve, nor do they need more layers of takanos. What they need is for people to open their eyes to reality, a reality that says that some people have more money than other people do. That fact should not engender in anyone a burning desire to have what that money can buy and do, without actually having that money. I'm really tired of hearing that "they" made me spend more than I have, that "they" have set the standards too high and I can't meet them on the money I have. No one has set any standards that have to be met except through our saying that they have. If you are spending money you don't have, if you are going into debt to have what "everyone" else has then the problem is YOURS, not that someone else's. We are letting our daydreams get in the way of reality. Social pressure? I admit that it does exist, but again, only if we let it live. Envy and desire are terrible ideas to base spending on.

We might try remembering that sage advice: "Ayzeh oshir? Sameach b'chelkoh." Who is the rich person? He who is happy with his portion. And if your portion doesn't happen to be the same size as someone else's, so what?

Note: I have purposefully left out any mention of yeshiva education in this posting. If, as a Klal, we believe that all Jewish children should be getting a yeshiva education, that it is a full requirement for the survival of Klal, then we need to think of how that is going to happen when the fact is that some people cannot afford the tuitions that are charged.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

It's the Customer Service Dummy!

Most consumer products and services within a given type are pretty much the same, except for the hype. Let's face it, most toasters, regardless of brand name, do what they are supposed to do: they toast bread. The same goes for laundry detergents, and sponges and just about all general products we buy for our home. And most services we purchase are likewise the same: one gardening service is pretty much the same as all the others, one travel agent pretty much the same as all others etc.. So how do they differ?

Customer service. Some companies are far better at getting and keeping customers because they seem to "care" more about a customer's needs and wants. Their customer service departments are more responsive. And yes, some of them go that little bit extra in providing customer service, an extra that attracts customers. As I point out to my students, in a world where shopping is literally at my fingertips, day or night, a store or service provider has to give me a reason to want to choose them. There's a correlative to this idea that is also important. When customer service is not good, when customers feel they have been treated poorly, they are going to complain, and not just to the service provider. Thanks to our technology the audience for those complaints about service are far ranging and far reaching.

So Delta Airlines, if you're listening, you've got problems. A flight on Delta from Israel to JFK. First, the airline tells the passengers that every seat will have its own television--didn't happen. Next, the cabin stewards came around exactly once to offer a drink to passengers--this is not exactly a 30 minute shuttle to Boston and people get thirsty in 12 hours. But the coupe de grace came when the passengers disembarked. They proceeded to the luggage retrieval area and down the ramp came.......three suitcases. Somehow the airline had managed to "lose" all the rest of the luggage from a packed flight. Were they apologetic and scrambling to let passengers know what had happened? Nope.

My nephew was on that flight. Miraculously one of his suitcases was one of the three that the airline had. Even more miraculously the suitcase that did show up had his Shabbos suit and shoes in it, so my sister was not going to have to scramble to go shopping with him. When will the other suitcases arrive? That the airline has yet to inform the passengers of.

So, given their stellar customer service, will you be running to fly Delta any time soon?