Activists & Survivors to Protest Agudath Israel President’s Abuse Enabling Policies 1644 48th st 7/23 3 PM

For Immediate Release
Contact Asher Lovy
347-369-4016
Asher@ZAAKAH.org

 

Advocates against child sexual abuse protest President of Agudath Israel of America for protecting secrets, not children

 

(New York, NY): ZAAKAH, an organization that advocates reforms that will end child sexual abuse in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, is protesting outside the President of  Agudath Israel on Sunday. The protest will be at the Novominsker Yeshiva – 1644 48th street in Boro Park – on  Sunday,July 23rd at 3 PM. The protest is against Agudath Israel’s opposition to the Child Victims Act and their policy that victims must ask a rabbi for permission before reporting sexual assault to the authorities.  

 

These two policies, coupled, are responsible for the coverups of thousands of cases of child sexual abuse. These policies, enacted and promoted by Yaakov Perlow, are in large part responsible for the continued sexual abuse of children in Charedi communities, and the continued apathy and indifference toward victims of child sexual abuse on the part of Charedi communities.Together, these two policies actually incentivise the coverup of abuse and coercion of victims by setting a goal for rabbis and community members who want to cover up abuse: Since the victim has to go to a rabbi, make sure the rabbi keeps the victim quiet until he turns 23, and it will no longer be an issue.” says Asher Lovy, organizer of the event.

 

“According to many studies, it takes, on average, between 10 and 30 years for victims to come forward about being abused sexually. Yaakov Perlow, President of Agudath Israel,  knows this. He knows the harmful effects of sexual abuse its victims – suicide, PTSD, eating disorders, addiction, problems with relationships, emotional trauma, physical trauma, to name a few – and despite being fully aware of the high costs of treating the effects of child sexual abuse, Yaakov Perlow, and the rest of the Moetzes, continue to set policies for Agudah that not only deny existing victims justice, but put our children’s futures and lives in danger by enabling the continuation of child sexual abuse. Yet they continue to oppose legislation to  eliminate the Statute of Limitations for child sexual abuse, and open a 1 year retroactive window for old cases, allowing survivors of child sexual abuse to get justice from their abusers and the institutions that protect them.” said Lovy.

 

The Child Victims Act (A5885A) will lengthen New York’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, which currently keeps most victims over the age of 23 from seeking any justice in criminal or civil courts. The bill will also allow victims over the age of 23 one year to sue their abuser retroactively.

 

“In New York, the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse prevents victims from pressing charges after their 23rd birthday. This means there are lots of dangerous sexual predators who are above the law and are working with children. This is a disgraceful thing for New York to do to its children and to abuse survivors”, said Andrew Willis, founder of the Stop Abuse Campaign.

 

ZAAKAH is dedicated to ending child sexual abuse within the Charedi communities. For more information email Asher@zaakah.org.

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My Abuser Was Not One Dimensional

Author’s note: This piece is based on something I wrote to some friends while writing a chapter for my webseries. I’m leaving it in its unedited form because that’s how I want the message to be seen. 

Writing about the bad times isn’t hard. That comes easy to me. I’m safe now. The bad times are now a weapon I wield rather than something I’m running from. Know what’s really hard? Writing about the good stuff. I have to keep forcing myself back to Scrivener to keep writing because I don’t want to acknowledge that they happened.

Because why does it fucking matter if there were good times? She fucking abused me on and off for most of my life, and then for 5 years nonstop toward the end of my living there. Why does it fucking matter that sometimes we went to restaurants, and travelled that one time, and used to talk a lot, and went places and stuff? Why the fuck does it matter?

It’s not like any of it mattered when she was trying to kill me. It’s not like it mattered when she was sexually abusing me, beating me, berating me, making me think I was a worthless piece of garbage who would have been better off aborted. None of it mattered when she ran out of the house yelling about getting a gun, then came home 3 hours later and sat there at the table with an oddly shaped paper bag, letting us wonder which of us she’d shoot first. It’s not like it mattered when she made my grandmother her literal slave, made her try to breastfeed her, grabbing her breasts and basically sexually assaulting her, made my grandmother wipe her ass, wash her, clean up her piss.

NONE OF THE GOOD STUFF MATTERED WHEN SHE WAS MAKING OUR LIVES A GODDAMN LIVING FUCKING HELL ON EARTH WHY SHOULD IT FUCKING MATTER NOW WHY DOES SHE DESERVE TO EVEN HAVE IT ACKNOWLEDGED WHY THE FUCK DO I EVEN REMEMBER IT I’D BE SO MUCH HAPPIER REMEMBERING ALL THE TERRIBLE SHIT THAT HAPPENED TO ME AND NEVER REMEMBERING THE GOOD TIMES THEY WERE SO IRRELEVANT TO WHAT SHE DID TO US

It’s not. not for me. For you it is. Read this blog post, read my story, watch my webseries, and remember that there were good times for me with her. Remember that I used to enjoy spending time with her. That she used to be my best friend. Remember that people are never one dimensional. They rarely only perpetrate evil. Remember that they’re not cartoon monsters, that they do good along with the bad. Remember that they can be great hosts while also beating their children. They can be very charitable, while also enslaving their families. They can be the person you turn to for help while also being a sadistic, barbarous, vicious abuser.

Remember that they can be the reason you get up in the morning, while also being the reason their son tries to kill himself.

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A Follow Up on Carlebach and The Abuse He Committed

Two years ago, following a “Carlebach Shabbos” at my former shul, I wrote an article in which I described the conflict I felt hearing Carlebach being praised for his selflessness and kindness, while simultaneously aware of allegations that he had molested women. I left the article open ended, simply giving my two sides, and left it open for my readers to responded. And boy, did they. The responses flooded in; comments, emails, Facebook messages, even some in-person responses. They came in heavy, heated, and varied. It’s been two years, and I’ve had time to reflect more on the subject, discuss it with more people, and gain some perspective on the issue. Furthermore, since then I’ve spoken to quite a number of his victims, three of whom left comments on my original post. I’d like to address a few things.

Right off the bat, people challenged me on the ethics of sharing an article alleging that someone who is dead and cannot defend himself committed abuse that has never been proven in court. Many people have claimed it’s simply lashon hara, and therefore refuse to even listen. Setting aside whether or not those same people are as careful about the laws of lashon hara when the person under discussion is not one of the spiritual idols, I’ll take it at face value.

It is lashon hara. But one of the exceptions to the prohibitions against speaking lashon hara is when there’s a to’eles, a purpose. Most notably, if there’s a general purpose in the community knowing, if it will prevent some harm, then it is permitted to speak lashon hara. The benefits of discussing Carlebach’s crimes are twofold. First, it sends a message to the community that abusers will have to pay, in one way or another for their crimes, that death is not an escape from the damage caused by sexual abusers. It’s a powerful message to send because there are so many victims out there whose stories are kept hidden by coercion and fear, because the people who keep those secrets are terrified of what their families, their communities might say or do to them if they dare come forward. The more stories are made public, the more people come forward, the more victims will feel safe and secure in coming forward and telling their stories, exposing their abusers, and pursuing justice against them.

Second, for decades Carlebach’s crimes were covered up. For decades, all his victims heard about him was constant praise bordering on deification, any criticism quashed, any attempt at bringing his crimes to light hushed and suppressed. It wasn’t just his followers either who were complicit. Perhaps they can be forgiven because they were blinded by his charisma and façade, but his right-hand men, his gabba’im were aware of the allegations, and actively suppressed the accusers. And for years all his victims heard were stories of Carlebach’s greatness, the constant praise of a man who could do no wrong, simultaneously invalidating their experiences and exalting the man who hurt them. They deserve to have their stories told, to have their experiences validated, and there are enough of them to constitute a to’eles harabim.

The next thing that bothered people about my article was the comparison to Bill Cosby, a man accused of drugging and raping over 50 women over the course of his life. How could I compare “Reb Shloime,” they asked, to a menuval like Bill Cosby? Carlebach doesn’t stand accused of drugging and raping anyone, just molesting them. And besides, he was a complicated man, everybody knew, nebach, he was probably lonely. It’s nothing like Cosby.

A few things. First, the article was written when the Cosby story was breaking. But more to the point, the comparison is not necessarily to the crimes committed (I’ll get to that in a bit, bear with me), but to the cultural significance of both accusations. Cosby wasn’t just some funny-man any more than Carlebach was just a singer. Both were leaders in their communities. Both had moral messages for their communities, and represented something so much bigger than just the art they each produced. Both were symbols of something greater. And both were accused of just about the most immoral thing a person can do: Violating, in such a heinous and personal fashion, the trust that people had in them and what they represented.

But more importantly, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding people about sexual assault. People assume that if the assault isn’t penetrative, that the trauma isn’t really anywhere near as severe as it would be if the assault were penetrative. Or that if the assault was penetrative, there’s a difference between penetration by a penis, a finger, or a foreign object. That somehow the violation, the trauma, is somehow lesser or more acceptable, or easier to forgive, or easier to do teshuva for simply because the law assigns penalties differently in each case. A sexual assault is a sexual assault, and it is the height of callousness to claim that just because the law needs to make gradated distinctions in penal code in order to actually have a functioning legal system, the trauma is any less severe. Whether penile or digital or with a foreign object, penetrative or non-penetrative, conscious or drugged, sexual assault is a massive violation of a person’s sovereignty over the only thing they really control: their body and their sexuality. Seeing it minimize it in the interest of making one group of people feel better that the guy they revere is not as bad as the guy another group reveres, is disgusting.

This past weekend, after sharing my article again this year in “honor” of Carlebach’s yahrtzeit, two women posted their stories as comments on the article. I’d like to share them below, because it leads me to my final point. The first is by a poster who used the name Shula.

“I was a 15 year old Bais Yaakov girl, enthralled with his music. I was in seventh heaven when he offered me a ride home from a concert. The driver and another person sat in the front, and he sat with me in the back. When he put his arm around my shoulder I was stunned but delighted; and then his hand started massaging my breast. I was 15 and completely naive, had no idea what was happening, but somehow felt embarrassed and ashamed. I just continued to sit silently without moving. This continued until I was dropped off at my house. He told me to come to his hotel room the next morning, and I did! He hugged me very tightly, and I stood frozen, not really understanding what was happening. Then the car came to pick him up, and again I went with him in the car and he dropped me off at school. And I never said a word to anyone, never! I’m a grandmother today, and can still recall that feeling in the pit of my stomach, the confusion and feeling ashamed. I never spoke about this, ever. But all of these comments of denial make me feel I have to confirm that these things happened. He was 40 years old, I was 15. He was an experienced 40 year old man and I was a very naive 15 year old Bais Yaakov girl. In those days we never talked about sex. I had never even spoken to a boy! I didn’t associate him with ‘a boy’ – he was like a parent figure, he was old. But I felt it was something to be ashamed of.

Your article is extremely important – these are conflicts that we have to deal with in life, but if no one ever brings them up, then each person, in each generation, has to over and over again re-invent the wheel of faith. The struggle for faith is hard enough; when these issues are so wrapped in secrecy (and I’m one of those that kept the secret for 53 years!).”

The second was written by a woman who went by the name Jerusalemmom:

“Dear Shula-I had an almost identical story to yours…I was a religious high school girl. 16 years old. I went to his house for a class-his wife opened the door and told me to go downstairs to wait for him. I was the first person there. As I was looking at his incredible library of Judaica he came down-hair and beard wet from the shower. Before I could blink he was on me. One hand down my blouse, another up my dress. I froze in fear. I was so lucky that other people came minutes later for the class and I was “saved.” It has taken me close to 40 years to talk about it. Why bother? People who were his followers give answers like “I can’t believe that” -or “we don’t want to know.” Or “he’s dead and can’t defend himself.”

 

May g-d grant you peace of mind and may you heal completely. Enjoy your grandchildren and teach them to NEVER EVER let anyone touch them without their permission.”

What’s interesting about Jerusalemmom is that this is the second time she’s shared her story on my blog. The first time she was attacked by Natan Ophir, author of the Carlebach biography, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy who claimed she was lying. According to him, over the course of his research for his “500 page academic biography” about Carlebach, published in 2014, he had interviewed the women in the Lillith article I quoted in my article, and none of them had stood up to rigorous examination that met his academic standards. I soon found out why.

He started out by asking me to put him in touch with Jerusalemmom. I emailed her and explained to her that Carlebach’s biographer was interested in interviewing her about the claim she’d just made in my comments section for his upcoming biography. I also explained that I got the feeling he’d be adversarial. She asked me for time to think about it, and I went to sleep, expecting to have a response in the morning. The next morning I found a bunch of comments awaiting moderation attacking the veracity of what some unidentified user on my blog had to say in an unverifiable “calumny.” Post after post awaited me in the moderation queue, all of the same kind, along with a slew of emails to my personal account to boot. When Jerusalemmom found out what he was doing, she asked me to remove her comments from my blog, and not contact her again regarding this. I apologized, and removed her comments from the article.

A few days later, the article was posted in a popular feminist Facebook group. Instantly, women started messaging me about their abuse at the hands of Carlebach, and posting comments on the page. Within the hour, Natan Ophir, who just happened to be lurking in that group despite never having participated before, popped up and started attacking anyone in the thread with anything negative to say about Carlebach. He was quickly booted out of the group, not for the comments, but for private messaging several of the women who had left comments on that thread.

In the interest of “fairness,” he sent me the chapter of the book he was writing in Hebrew about Carlebach for review. He said he had included some stories about Carlebach’s “darker side,” which, after reading that chapter, to him meant the claims that he was having contact with women other than his wife. Nothing about the allegations of abuse. When I asked him about it, he claimed he couldn’t find anyone with a sufficiently credible story, despite having spoken to dozens of women about it, one of whom actually confronted him in that Facebook thread about distortions he had made in quoting her in his book.

This all took place in December-January 2014, 20 years after his death. Which leads me to my final point. The third thing people say when these allegations come up is, “Why didn’t these women come forward when it happened? Why are they waiting until he’s dead for twenty years to come forward?” Or, “Oh, it was probably a bunch of women who slept with a celebrity, woke up the next day with buyer’s remorse, and cried sexual assault. You know how it is.” And I’d like to address those claims, because they are worryingly relevant.

The women I spoke to were terrified to come forward publicly. Despite the fact that there’s very little in their lives that they have to lose by doing so at this point. They have families, they’re grandmothers now, for the most part, and they don’t have jobs that hang in the balance if they come out and tell their stories about Carlebach. But they do have to worry about people like Natan Ophir following them around harassing them. They do have to worry about the hatred that Carlebach’s followers seem to have in endless supply for people who have a different, more troubling story about their beloved leader. At this point, many of them feel that it’s just not worth fighting that battle.

But as to why they didn’t come forward sooner? They did. Or rather, they tried. Many of them tried to confront Carlebach about what he did, but when his gabba’im found out about why they wanted to talk to him, they made sure to keep them away. When his followers found out that someone was harboring such an accusation, they made sure to shut them out, and make it plain that they were no longer welcome. The legend they’d built in their minds and their hearts was too big and too fragile to fail. And the truth is it’s not unexpected. Carlebach, to so many, represents the very essence of their Judaism. For many he’s the very reason they have any connection at all, whether spiritual, cultural, or religious, to Judaism. For many, his message of love and acceptance, of connection to God rather than strict observance of a set of laws, of following the spirit to transcend the letter. Without him that message is lost, and without that message they lose their connection.

I feel for such people. I do. And that’s how we return to the original question: Is it possible to separate the art from the artist; the message from the man. Two years ago, when I wrote the article, I didn’t know the answer. But now, to me, the answer is clear. I’ve decided to let it all go. I no longer listen to or sing his music. I don’t feel personally that it’s appropriate to listen to the music and stories of a man whose art gave him the power and status he needed to get away with abusing so many women. I can’t honestly stand at the Amud and sing L’cha Dodi to any of Carlebach’s tunes and feel anything but dirty. I can’t tell myself that God wants my prayers when they come packaged in such poisoned melodies.

I don’t know if that’s the appropriate decision for everyone to make, but that’s the decision I’ve made. But whether people decide to keep listening to and singing his music, or they decide to let it go and find other sources of inspiration, the man and the artist have to die. The legend has to die. Perhaps the message and the music can live on, but not through him. Not through someone who hurt so many people. He doesn’t deserve our praise.

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How We Let Abuse Happen

The following was a response to someone who commented on my recent Hevria post about a Newsweek article detailing abuse and cover-up at Oholei Torah in Crown Heights. I’ve copied the comment here:

Abuse and its cover-ups should never be tolerated. Still, I take issue with your claim that the outrage will always be that the articles by secular outlets are anti-Semitic simply because this is such a searingly uncomfortable subject. It is pretty clear in the Newsweek article that they are pushing an agenda and trying to spread the idea that abuse like this happens BECAUSE of the nature of the religious/Chassidic community (this despite their “disclaimer” that abuse doesn’t necessarily occur more in Chassidic communities than secular). They misreport facts about the insularity of the culture and use their own misunderstandings as support for theories like “abuse is perpetuated because religious people are ignorant and close-minded”, beliefs that reek of bigotry. I think if issues were addressed with more respect, compassion, and empowerment, and less shaming and polarizing sensationalism, they’d be better received by the community and the focus would be less on the anti-Semitism of the article and more on solutions.

My response:

Three things facilitate this kind of abuse and cover-up. I’ll unpack them below. You’re welcome to call me an anti-Semite too, but these are things I’ve learned during my years of being a victim, and my years of activism on behalf of victims.

1) Willful ignorance

2) Denial

3) Conspiracy

Willful ignorance:

There is very little talk about sex and sexuality in general. It’s not considered tznius or appropriate. I’m not going to get into the merits or disadvantages of that, it’s just a fact. We shy away from anything related to it. We don’t use proper words for genitalia, like penis and vagina, we don’t have discussions about safe sex and consent, and we don’t explain children’s bodies to them, generally speaking. Many kids have no frame of reference to interpret what happened to them when they’re abused, because they don’t even know how to relate to their own bodies.

Again, I’m not trying to start an argument about whether we should or shouldn’t change that, but it is the reality. Sex is considered a private subject inappropriate for public discussion regardless of the context. And that *is* due to our religious culture. for better or worse.

That being the case, abusers know that there’s more they can get away with. They know that kids don’t really know what’s happening to them, they know the kids aren’t generally prepared to protest or tell anyone immediately after because they wouldn’t even know how to describe it, and they know that no one would believe the kid anyway, because what kind of nice Jewish person would do that. Which leads to the next two steps, denial and conspiracy.

Denial:

Being that the very topic of sex even in the context of consensual sex is so taboo and private, kal v’chomer non-consensual sex, or sexual abuse. The notion of someone having sex with someone else consensually outside the confines of marriage, let alone someone of the same sex, is so outside the realm of possibility for most sincere frum Jews that the notion of someone having sex with someone else *non* consensually is just impossible to fathom. The idea that someone who claims to have accepted torah and mitzvos, someone who goes to shul 3 times a day, puts on tefillin, keeps kosher, and learns in his spare time – certainly a rebbi – could do such a horrible crime is beyond the comprehension of many.

And it’s completely understandable, but it’s false. And it, again, is because of our religious culture. Once again, I’m not looking to debate the merits or disadvantages, it’s just a fact. That’s how the rank and file who don’t know any better react to abuse allegations. Especially since many abuse victims, by the time they finally pluck up the courage to report, have developed some serious problems, and/or gone off the derech, so to speak. They come off as angry, with an ax to grind, which they must have, because they’re no longer religious.

They must want to get back at the religious people who forced them to keep shabbos all those years, or whatever. No one ever considers that it’s because they were abused that they have psychological issues requiring therapy or meds, in many cases. No one considers that their eating disorders, drug habits, depression, personality changes might have happened as a result of abuse at the hands of the person they’re accusing, because again, the notion is inconceivable, and we tend to believe the nice religious guy with standing in the community rather than the OTD guy with problems. Which again, is the result of our religious culture. For better or worse. Which leads me to the last step, conspiracy.

Conspiracy:

Until now I was discussing people who are not familiar with the details of these cases, and who don’t have any personal connection to any abuse cases. The rank and file, as it were. They’re not involved in the conspiracy, they’re used by the people who are. The people at the top, the roshei yeshiva, principles, administrators – the ones to whom the allegations are often first made – actively silence victims who come forward with allegations of abuse. They’re the ones who threaten students with expulsion, call them liars, tell them it was their own fault, and do their best to keep the victim silence. In Chaim Levin’s case, for example, Rabbi Lustig told Chaim’s parents, after he came to Rabbi Lustig with an allegation against his cousin who abused him for 4 years, that the name of the abuser was irrelevant, and that he should just move on. He also failed to inform the police of the allegation, as he was required to by law.

But it doesn’t stop there. Many times it stops with the leaders. If they tell someone not to come forward, either by convincing them not to “ruin a man’s family,” parnassah, or otherwise appealing to their conscience, or by threatening or blackmailing them into silence, the victim will just give up and not pursue the case further. Sometimes the victim doesn’t care, and wants to pursue the case regardless of what they were told, and what threats were made. That’s when the leaders take advantage of the community’s naïveté.

When the allegations are made public, the community leaders, who themselves have dealt with many cases of abuse, generally behind closed doors, and often by intimidating victims, will issue a public statement standing behind the alleged abuser, and trashing the victim. The community, already ignorant of the fact that abuse takes place, and in denial that it could actually happen, of course sides with whomever their leaders tell them to, because why shouldn’t they? They have a tremendous amount of reverence for their leaders, and have no reason to assume that their leaders are misleading them or lying to them.

And all this is due to the fact that our religious culture, for better or worse, fosters this ignorance, and this denial, which enables the conspiracy.

Now, I just wrote that out in a very long explanation. The condensed version is what you’ll find in those sentences in the Newsweek article you objected to. Tell yourself it has nothing to do with the culture we’ve built around our religion, but it’s just not true. There are many beautiful things about our culture, and many ugly things we’d prefer not to acknowledge. This is an example of the latter.

 

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Why I Never Discuss Tragedy in Its Immediate Aftermath

Short answer? Because it’s maddening. It’s so infuriatingly predictable and horrible. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that when tragedy strikes, my first thought, after registering the shock and horror of what happened, is to consider all the ways that the tragedy will be exploited, and guess how long it’ll take until that happens. I’m rarely wrong. Every time there’s a mass shooting, I count the seconds until Wayne LaPierre issues a pro-gun statement, and wonder whether it’ll be him who speaks first, or the anti-gun crowd, neither side able to wait until the bodies are actually cold and buried before they pick them apart for scraps of an argument.

 

Here’s the long answer. Every single time I’ve lost my cool, and in a moment of pure anguish and frustration written a diatribe against whatever social ill I felt was the “real” cause of whichever tragedy had just happened, it made me feel good for around 10 minutes, but then inevitably sucked me into an irrelevant argument that left me feeling terrible, and utterly disconnected from the empathy I knew I should be feeling. In the aftermath of the Yishai Schlissel stabbings at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, I was so angry I got on Facebook and said that I hoped this would cause the Nations to hate us, because maybe if they used this as an excuse to start persecuting us again, we’d get an idea of how wrong and hurtful our homophobia really is. But of course the world doesn’t work like that. Violence doesn’t beget understanding, it begets more violence, until the whole world is blinded by it.

 

This is especially relevant when we have a suicide in the religious, or formerly-religious world. Immediately, the vultures descend on the body, from both sides, each claiming the suicide victim as their martyr. He died because of mental illness, and we need to do our utmost to address this serious problem. No, counters the other side, she died because her frum family, shitty, callous people that they were, tortured her so relentlessly about her choice to leave religion, that she finally killed herself. No, you don’t know the whole story. No, you don’t know the whole story. And on it goes, the buzzards feast, and secondary to the entire discussion, is the reason the discussion is happening: A person died.

 

A few years ago, an IDF soldier was found dead with his weapon next to him. The circumstances around his death were a little murky, but since he had been an open survivor of abuse who had described his struggles on his blog, certain activists immediately jumped to the conclusion that it must be suicide, because it fit the narrative they wanted to promote. And as just a cause as I’m sure they felt their co-opting of tragedy was, as just as I’m sure everyone who exploits tragedy for their agenda feels it is, they did so without regard to the feelings of the family, the actual mourners who were now left bereft of a son, a brother, a cousin, and on top of all that had to read agenda-driven speculation online while their loved one awaited burial.

 

Personally, I decided not to discuss it at the time. I can’t tell you why—it wasn’t because of this policy that I have, which, at the time, I didn’t yet have—but something stayed my opinions. About two years later, I got a Facebook message from the sister of that soldier, thanking me for not jumping on the bandwagon that was using her brother’s supposed suicide as a soapbox for their opinions. She told me that they still weren’t sure what it was, and that she appreciated the fact that I hadn’t used his death to make a point. That was the moment that I realized what had stopped me from discussing it—the understanding that the very worst time to discuss tragedy, is immediately in its aftermath.

 

If we intend to teach, to educate, to change the world in a way that prevents tragedy from happening again, then the absolute worst time to discuss it is when emotions are running high, no one is particularly interested in discussing things rationally, everyone already has an opinion that you’re not going to change, and nothing new will be added to the conversation that one billion other people with a Facebook account won’t already be saying. And of course all these post-tragedy rants range from the mildly to wildly offensive, not just to people on your friends lists, but also to the victims and their families who have to hear the world fighting for the endorsement rights to their pain and suffering.

 

If you must speak following tragedy, if you absolutely must say something because it hurts too much to keep it all in, try to think about what the victims and their families want to hear. Make it about them, not yourselves. What we might call slacktivism might just be compassion. A world standing in solidarity, saying “We’re here for you, all of us, and we have a lot to say, but we understand that right now is not the time to say it.” And yes, changing your profile picture to include a different overlay might not actually change anything, but you don’t need to immediately start changing anything in the direct aftermath of tragedy. If there was something you could have done about it, presumably you would have.

 

But the tragedy happened. And there are people who suffer in its aftermath. And those people need love, and support, and a feeling of safety and security while their world crashes down around them. They don’t need your opinions, and they don’t need your agendas. There’s always time for that later, when the passion and anger has subsided, and we can begin to discuss how to prevent it from ever happening again. When you won’t say things you’ll later regret. When you won’t lose friends because you absolutely had to speak your mind. When your words are motivated not by an angry desire to watch the world that allowed such tragedy burn, but by a love and empathy that needs the world to heal.

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May It Be My Worst Problem

I used to get very ordinary haircuts. I’d go to the closest barber about once every two or three months, and get a number 4 buzzcut right over the top. No frills. But then I started dating, and more than one of my girlfriends told me that they liked my hair and wished I would stop shearing it all off. And if a girl who liked spending time with me wanted more of my hair, who was I to say no. I told her I’d go to whichever salon she recommended. She picked a place, and I made a reservation for a week later. The price was a bit steep, but anything to make her happy, right?

I got there at 7 PM, and entered a room made for men. Animal skin throw rugs, rich, plush leather chairs, mounted trophy heads, a magazine rack holding everything from Car and Driver to Playboy, a beer tap, large selection of scotches, and, of course, four beautiful women doing the styling. It was a stunningly chuckleworthy caricature to masculinity. I suspect she chose it because she thought it would appeal to me. It did, but more to my sense of irony. As soon as I walked in, the receptionist greeted me, asked to take my jacket, and offered me a drink. I could get used to this.

I’m pretty introverted by nature. It may not seem like it to people who know me online, mainly because of how much I talk when they finally meet me in real life, but my close friends know that I don’t really do well with new people. It takes effort to get me to talk to you, because even if you do walk over to me and say hi, I’ll just smile and politely say hi back, and then go back to staring at a fixed point on the wall to your left, until you decide to say something else. I was still getting used to the amenities included in the $100 haircut experience, but what I wasn’t ready for, or comfortable with, was the conversation that seemed to be included.

The other men seemed to enjoy it just fine. Their stylists would play to their fancies, asking them about work, and vacations, and cars, and bars, and girls, and they’d go on and on, goaded forward by the stylists who were committed to making the haircut as enjoyable an experience as possible. And what more enjoyment can a man have, really, than having his vanities indulged by a beautiful woman. For me, it was a whole lot more uncomfortable, though. I had nothing in common with those men. I didn’t have apartments in other cities, or the pocket change necessary to fly off to wherever whenever I felt like it. More to the point, I really didn’t like talking. The conversations were like pulling teeth; she’d ask me some perfunctory questions about work, or travel, I’d give her short, clipped answers, and we’d fall into silence, until it was time to get rinsed.

After about six months of this, we finally developed some kind of rapport. The conversation was a little easier, and I felt more comfortable about it. When she asked about my life, I’d actually tell her about it. But something funny started happening. Somehow, right before my monthly haircuts, something unfortunate would happen to me, or several unfortunate somethings would happen to me, and I’d be compelled to tell her about it when she asked. One month my car was wrecked, another it was towed and I had to spend 6 hours getting it out of the tow pound, next month I’d broken up with someone I was dating, and on it would go, one long series of unfortunate events. And even though I told her these stories with a smile, laughing them off like they were insignificant, they bothered her, to the point where she (politely) asked me to stop talking about them, and changed the subject. I think the fact that I was laughing about things that to her were so plainly terrible made it even worse; how twisted does someone have to be, or how bad must things have been, to make someone laugh at things that make other people cry.

This month was going to be different, though. I was actually looking forward to my haircut so I could tell her about the wonderful time I’d had with my friends over the recent holidays. It really was fantastic. Atlanta for Rosh Hashana, Crown Heights for Yom Kippur, Boro Park, Canarsie, and Flatbush for Sukkos, including trips with friends for Chol hamoed. It was honestly the best time I’ve ever had on Yom tov. And I was so looking forward to finally having some good news for her, maybe make her smile instead of rolling her eyes. And then everything went pear shaped.

It started with the laundromat. I brought all of my clothing in on Erev Sukkos, but the computers were down. One of the workers handed me a slip of paper, told me to write down my name, phone number and address, and come back in a week for the clothing. When I came back, it was all gone. All of it. I even went behind the counter and sifted through all of the laundry myself. Hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothing, gone. Which was made even worse by the fact that because of Yom Tov, I haven’t worked a proper week this month, and barely had enough to pay my rent, let alone my credit cards. As if that weren’t enough, a student of mine crashed my car during a driving lesson last Friday, causing $1600 worth of damage to my car, and another $800 to the other guy. My car is going to be in the shop for a week, during which time I won’t be able to work.

I was able to borrow a coworker’s car for the weekend to drive myself back home, and on the way I decided to check in on the laundromat to see if they had, by some miracle, found my clothing. They hadn’t, and rather than just give me the claims form to fill out, had me stand there for a half hour while they turned the place upside-down looking for a bag that was clearly not there, all in the hope that they could avoid having another claim from their store logged with the main corporate offices. Eventually everyone gave up, and I filled out a claims form for the lost laundry. As I was walking back to the parking lot, I dropped my car keys over a drain.

As I saw them fall, I almost didn’t care anymore. Of course this would happen to me. Of course. And right then. A perfect end to a perfect week. But then they bounced. The key had hit a piece of the latticework over the drain, and bounced off onto the pavement. And as I bent to pick it up, I couldn’t control myself, and burst out laughing. Some guy across the lot thought I was crackers, but it was the most incredible thing. For five minutes I couldn’t stop, and all that was going through my head was “My God, imagine how much worse it could have been.”

It really got me thinking about everything in my life, all of the abuse, all of the pain, all of the unfortunate things I’ve been made to experience. I’ve spent the past 6 years blogging about everything that’s gone wrong, about the anger I’ve felt toward God, the constant adversity I’ve managed to overcome, but it hit me in that moment, how little time I spend being thankful and appreciative for everything that has gone right in my life, how much worse it could have been but for God’s intervention. And I couldn’t stop laughing because all of that complaining I do, whether or not it’s justified, in that moment seemed so ridiculous, because the good is right there in front of me, constantly, and all I need to do, really, is open my eyes and see it. It felt like my whole life, everything I’ve ever experienced, had to happen to set the stage for that moment when I’d see my keys fall toward that drain, and they would bounce away onto the pavement.

I’ve had a very difficult life. But I’ve also had a very blessed life. I’ve been blessed with the best friends on the planet, a community of people whom I consider my new family, incredibly charitable people who opened their hearts and pockets when I had nothing, the most amazing and supportive readers on the internet (seriously, my comments section is wonderful). I’ve been blessed with health, and a job that (usually) pays the bills. I have a landlady that most tenants would kill for, a boss who is nice to a fault, coworkers who somehow manage to put up with me, and clients who pay on time. So what if things go wrong every now and again. What’s a night at the tow pound in the larger scheme of things. Dented cars can be fixed, clothing replaced, debts deferred, and wounds healed. May they be my worst problems. I have everything I need. And hey, at least my keys didn’t fall down the drain.

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Dancing in My Chair – The Rest of My Story

It was the same every Simchas Torah, which is why I kept going back to Young Israel Beth-El of Borough Park. I tried other places, but I could never get comfortable. The men and children would gather excitedly around the bimah, anticipation in their eyes, the long-awaited release of the singing and dancing as they circumambulated the bimah, Torah scrolls held reverently to their chests, or high in the air by some of the stronger folks, celebrating the yearly completion of the Torah. Ana Ad-nai hoshia na! And they’d be off.

Slowly at first. My favorite part was always the beginning, slowly chanting the first verse of the portion designated to each of the seven hakafos. All the places I went to skipped the rest. The verses are all from the latter part of Psalms 19 and recited in order at the beginning of each hakafah respectively, yet somehow nobody in the places I’d go seemed able to keep a handle on which verse was said when, and what the words actually were. I always prided myself on knowing the correct verse, and often my voice would be the only one chanting the words while the rest of the congregation took a momentary break to consult a prayer book. We’d start low, slowly chanting, building the melody, our voices rising, higher, until the climax where we’d profess loudly, and joyously, children and Torah scrolls held aloft, our belief in the absolute truth of the Torah, and in Moshe, the greatest prophet who ever lived. And then the dancing would start.

Well, I say dancing. It’s more like running in circles. It’s kind of nice, though. Everyone joins hands, or holds the shoulder of the person in front of him, forming what amounts to a large, circular conga line, typically focused, and dancing, around something important in the middle. At weddings, it’s the bride, or groom. On Simchas Torah, it’s the bimah, where the Torah is read. It gets much livelier than it sounds a few rounds in. Some people grab the person next to them and go off to the side to form their own, faster paced circles. Some people grab the person in front or to the side of them, and encourage them to sing a little louder, smile a little broader, and dance just a little harder.

That’s why I loved going to Young Israel. None of that ever happened there. No one ever grabbed me, or bumped into me. No children ever wrapped their arms around my leg, bumming a ride around the bimah. There were a grand total of three young children in a congregation of older and middle-aged men. I could dance around without holding anyone’s hand, or having anyone touch my shoulder. I don’t like when people do that, but it’s hard to tell people you don’t like being touched. They start looking at you funny, like you’re some kind of damaged leper. Sometimes they ask what happened to you, and actually expect an explanation. Most of the time I put up with it without complaining too much, because that’s what’s expected of me, and honestly I just don’t have the patience to explain to everyone in shul that I really want to be a part of the group, but only if no one touches me.

Sometimes I can handle it. Sometimes I can’t. I wasn’t in Young Israel this year, and I really couldn’t handle it. The night of Simchas Torah I managed to last for two hakafos, and then had to leave shul or risk punching the next person whose hand reached for mine. The next day, I deliberately came late. I told the friends I was staying by that I was hung over from the previous night and overslept, but the truth is, I just didn’t want to deal with hakafos. I wandered into shul around 11 o’clock and sat in a pew watching the merriment. Some people tried to get me to dance, taking pity on that guy in the corner sitting alone, but honestly I’ve become very happy watching from afar. I’m not sad, and I don’t feel alone. I’m with them in spirit. Dancing in my chair.

I’ve disliked being touched for as long as I can remember. Until just a few years ago, I couldn’t remember ever liking hugs, or feeling loved by kisses. I never felt camaraderie from an arm around my shoulder, or a pat on the back. Touch always made me feel intensely uncomfortable, as though anywhere in the world would be better than where I was in that moment. I never really knew why, or gave it much thought, I just knew I didn’t like it. And then one night a few years ago, while working on the manuscript for a memoir I’ve since scrapped, I made a terrifying connection. I was writing a paragraph about how I’ve always hated being touched, and how I’ve never had a hug I liked, and this connection I had never made before hit me like a ton of bricks. I ran over to my blackboard and wrote it all down before the realization went away. As I wrote, it jarred me, left me shaking, but I set it aside and went on with my life.

Two weeks later, I was in a chatroom for an online support group in which I was a member, and we were talking about my aversion to touch. One of my friends in the room asked me if I remember ever liking being touched by anyone, and that same connection hit me again, and this time it was there to stay. I told them everything.

I told them how I could remember hating being touched by my mother. How she used to hover over me all the time, and touch me more than I was comfortable with; how I did ask her to stop every now and again, but she never listened. I was her son and she was entitled to certain things. She hugged me whenever she wanted to, kissed me whenever she wanted to, but sometimes those kisses made me feel funny. I had no idea why, but I knew it was not ok. I told her to stop, but she always told me that a mother is entitled to kiss her child. She would kiss me in places that made me feel aroused. Never on my mouth, or anywhere that would be considered overtly inappropriate. On my ears, my earlobes, my neck, my shoulders, and different parts of my face. I knew how it made me feel, and while I didn’t understand what that feeling was at the age of 5, I knew it was wrong.

She would do this until I couldn’t handle it anymore, and that feeling I was feeling became all-consuming, and 5 year old me knew it had to be relieved. So 5 year old me would masturbate. Sometimes I would do it in private, sometimes I couldn’t go somewhere private, so I would stick my hand in my pants off to the side and do what I had to. Sometimes she would be in the same room and I would try to hide it under the covers. Apparently she saw me doing it, because she would tease me about it when I finished. One name she’d call me when she saw me was “masturbating genius.”

The incident I recall most vividly is when I was 12 and she was kissing me like that at the Shabbos table. She would not stop, no matter how much I protested, squirmed, or tried to inch away from her. My whole family was sitting at that table and she was kissing me that way, and I felt myself getting aroused, and I didn’t know what to do. She would not stop. After about a half hour, I couldn’t contain it any longer, but I also couldn’t leave in middle of the Shabbos meal, so I went to the couch behind my grandfather, masturbated in my pants, and came back to the Shabbos table. She knew. I could see she knew. She started kissing me again. She teased me about it later. This happened for ten years of my life.

When I finished telling my friends in the chat, I was shaking, crying, having a panic attack, and all I wanted to do was die. The shame was unbearable. I felt so dirty, so disgusting. What kind of sick freak masturbates when his mother kisses him. And which mother doesn’t kiss her children? Those other kids never masturbated when their mothers kissed them, what excuse did I have? Was what she did really different? Was it really wrong? I didn’t know. My friends were telling me it wasn’t my fault, but I couldn’t understand how it wasn’t. I had put my own hand, down my own pants, stimulated my own penis, until I reached orgasm. She hadn’t done that, I had done that. And no matter how many times my friends told me that it was her fault because I was a child and she knew what she was doing, it would not sink in.

My friend, who ran the online group, drove in from where she lived, picked me up, brought me to her house for the weekend, and arranged for me to see a therapist the next week. I told my therapist this story, and she also told me it wasn’t my fault, and again, I refused to believe her. “If you had a video,” she asked me, “of what she did to you, what would you think was happening? Would it look like a mother kissing a son?” I thought about it for a second or two, and told her “No. It looks like foreplay.” I had to know, though. “Did she know what she was doing? Did she know that what she was doing was making me aroused?” My therapist asked me if she had ever had sex before. I’m living proof she has. “If she’s ever had sex, which she obviously has, she knows what arousal looks like in someone else. She knew what she did, and what she did was wrong, and it was not your fault. You have nothing to be ashamed of.” No one had ever told me that before.

Even after discussing, and dissecting it with my therapist, I never spoke about it with anyone. It sort of became this festering secret that I stored in my mind’s attic, encrusted in mothballs and collecting dust, until the day I’d be forced to drag it back out and stare it in the face. I don’t know why I’m doing this now. I guess because I’m sick of being that lonely-looking guy in the corner of the shul. I’m sick of having to either go along or leave instead of asking people to respect my boundaries. I’m sick of being the freak.

This doesn’t mean I’m magically going to start liking touch. I’ve known this stuff for years, already, and it hasn’t made me any more comfortable being touched than I was when I didn’t know why. It’s a work in progress. It’s weird, though, I love being touched by the right people. I love a good hug from a close friend. I crave it, and need it, and hate going without it. But there are only a few people whom I trust enough to let touch me. I wish I could carry cards around and hand them out to people explaining my situation and asking them to respect it. Perhaps that’s too much to ask.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be ‘cured’ of my aversion to touch, and I don’t know that life would magically go back to normal if I were. But until that happens, please try to bear with me. If you see me sitting off to the side, smiling slightly, tapping my feet in time with the singing, please don’t come over and ask me to dance. I’m not lonely, and I’m not sad. I’m with you. In spirit. I’m dancing in my chair.

 

 

 

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