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 by which sexual abusers can dodge the repercussions of their crimes; that even if they can’t personally answer for their crimes in life, their legacies will in death. 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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Megillas Esther: A Story of Theodicy

So here are some thoughts that have been on my mind for the past week. They’re still a little disjointed, so bear with me.

The question of theodicy is one of my biggest intrigues in religion. I love reading about the subject, and trying to understand all the sides to the question, and the (non) answers we have for it. In going through NaCH, the question is addressed many times, each with similar answers. Most notable is Iyov, where the question of theodicy plays out on a grand scale, when the Satan dares God to test Iyov’s faith, and God, for some reason, takes the bait.

With each successive test of faith, Iyov refuses to renounce or curse God, and yet, in chapter three, he curses the day he was born, and expresses anger and despair at his situation. Maintaining his innocence throughout the book despite his “friends'” accusations, all Iyov wants is an explanation for why bad things happened to an innocent man. What’s particularly difficult about reading Iyov is the fact that throughout the book you know God’s reason – to win a bet – while Iyov agonises for over thirty chapters.

Even more unsatisfying is the ending, where Iyov finally does get his answer, which amounts to “shut up, I’m God, you don’t get to understand my plans.” the answer inspires both faith and distrust in God. Faith because given God’s omnipotence we can assume that in the next world if not in this one all debts are reckoned and all wrongs are righted. Distrust because God gives such a high and mighty answer (I created the world, I created great creatures to play with, I created rivers, oceans, mountains, etc) to cover up such a petty reason for torturing a person.

Parenthetically, I think it’s important to note (and I believe this often gets overlooked) Iyov is not a particularly flattering book for God, and yet it was included in the canon. Obviously God didn’t really have much of a direct say in that, but to me it speaks further to an acknowledgement on the part of our forbears that God is meant to be grappled with, questioned, confronted, that these are elements of any relationship in conflict, where one party has a claim against the other; an acknowledgement that it’s not healthy to hold it all in, but to let it all out, and ultimately resolve it. I may be taking liberty with that interpretation, but that’s what the inclusion of Iyov says to me, in addition to its message on theodicy.

But Iyov only answers one aspect of theodicy – it only serves to justify God’s position in the question. It does nothing to instruct us, the people who suffer from God’s mysterious plan, how to handle the question. Because God’s answer is unsatisfying, in Iyov. All it says is that God has a reason, and we shouldn’t question it. It implies that debts will be reckoned, and wrongs righted, but it doesn’t tell us why an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God couldn’t come up with a better plan.

And that’s where I believe Megillas Esther comes in.

A lot is said about the fact that God isn’t mentioned once in Megillas Esther. There are different explanations as to why. Either because politically it was dangerous to gloat too much, and rub a foreign God in the faces of the Persians, who didn’t just magically start loving Jews simply because the Jews killed a bunch of them. The Megillah says that a fear of the Jews fell on the people, it says nothing about love. Or because God was in a state of hester panim, hiding God’s face, because of the sin of attending Ahasuerus’ feast. But I think there’s another, perhaps stronger message there.

There are different circumstances under which miracles happen in the Torah. Sometimes it’s out of necessity. The Jews were complaining about food, so God sent them food. They complained about water, so God sent them water. They were languishing in Egypt, worshipping idols, and God came and saved them. Many of the miracles in the Torah required no action on the part of the Jewish people, with a few notable exceptions.

Most notably, at the splitting of the sea (well, at least according to midrash). Pharaoh’s army is converging upon them, as they stand with their backs to the Red Sea, asking Moshe if he took them so far into the wilderness because there weren’t enough graves in Egypt. Except this time, no miracle happened. The Egyptians kept coming, and the sea didn’t split. Until Nachson ben Aminadav walked into the water and nearly drowned himself. That’s when the sea split. God needed a stronger reason to perform that miracle than just the complaints of the Jews. God needed an active testament of faith.

But more to the point, God seemed absent in the situation until there was an active testament of faith. Very much like the story in Megillas Esther.

Esther is another quintessential story of how theodicy should be handled, not as a theological question, but practically. Esther is gathered along with all of the young women if the empire, and stuck in the king’s harem. She refuses all accouterments and cosmetics in an attempt to repulse the king. Despite that, the king, for some reason, picks her to be Queen. There are opinions that claim that the entire relationship was non-consensual. There are further opinions that Esther was already married to, Mordechai.

Further in the text, we see that Esther has fallen out of favour with Ahasuerus. This woman, Esther, whom he chose not as another concubine in his harem but as the Queen of his empire, whom he wanted so badly despite how plain she made herself, just a few years into their marriage, had not been summoned to the king in a whole month. My guess is that he got sick of her being unenthusiastic about the whole non-consensual thing, but was stuck with her as Queen. In any event, she was stuck in a pretty horrible situation, and the question of theodicy had to be on her mind.

And then the decree to annihilate the Jews reaches her from Mordechai, and Mordechai asks her to approach the king, illegally, after he hasn’t wanted to see her for thirty days. And her response, as you can imagine, was not enthusiastic. His answer, though, is the nugget here. “And who knows if this is exactly why you came to be Queen?”

I didn’t fully appreciate this question until last week, but it’s incredible, really. He’s not telling her that God’s purpose was definitely so she could be in position for this. In fact he tells her that he believes salvation will come from someplace else if she doesn’t want to take any action. But what he’s really saying is, “Esther, I know things are terrible for you. I know you don’t understand why bad things are happening to you. But what if – what if – the purpose is what you make it? What if, despite never being able to ask God why God did this to you, you hew your own purpose from this personal tragedy, and make that purpose the salvation of your people?”

And that’s when the miracle happened. Not in a blaze of Godly glory, but in an almost incontrovertibly miraculous series of coincidences catalysed by Esther’s active testament of faith in accepting that there was a plan, acknowledging that the true purpose will remain unknown, but finding her own purpose, and acting upon it, even though it might have led to her death. God saw this active testament of faith, this personal answer to theodicy, and the miracle began.

Because sometimes miracles happen, and sometimes we make miracles happen. And sometimes they’re grand and glorious and obvious, and sometimes they’re subtle and almost coincidental. But while the big obvious miracles may seem more significant, it’s actually the smaller, less obvious miracles that are the true testament to faith. The miracles that happen when we don’t just sit back, complain, and wait for God to do something miraculous, but when we proactively decide to take action, ascribe meaning and purpose to our situation, and do something about it, not certain if it will actually work, but with a belief that if we take the first step, if we act on that purpose, that we will receive some kind of quiet (or not so quiet) heavenly assistance. Because that’s the ultimate testament of faith, and that’s the real answer to theodicy (insofar as we get any answer), and Purim is the celebration of that faith.

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Chanukah Brings Out the Jew in Me

I was raised religious in a very yeshivish/mildly chassidish/Hungarian type family in Boro Park. I stayed religious until around age 17, and then I stopped believing, mainly because the cultural ills of the community made me stop believing in Jews, and once I lost my faith in Jews, I lost my faith in the God that chose them. For three years I struggled with faith. I searched for answers, some meaning to life. I constantly debated the existence of God, and found myself alternating between both sides.

At age 20, I found God. Not the god to whom I’d been raised to pay lip service, but God. I came to recognise a God I could love, a God I could talk to, a God I could pray to. I also came to recognize the God I could scream at, swear at, blame for all the wrong in my life. I guess I came to recognise God the therapist, the enigmatic planner, the riddler, the parent, the king. I came to recognise a very complicated God with whom I knew I could forge a complicated relationship that would have its ups and downs, but that would always be true and honest.

But there were still Jews. The same Jews who had made me suffer. The Jews who had created the culture that had stifled my pain for the benefit of their image. I was religious. I had God, and I had a list of rules which told me how to “please” God, but I had lost a people, a national and cultural identity. I tried as hard as I could to erase my Jewish identity. I identified strongly with our history, but I felt ashamed of what we’d become, so I did my best to stamp out as much of it as I could in my life.

I grew my hair out a little, and got a more modern hairstyle. I got rid of my velvet kippah and replaced it with a smaller, more inconspicuous knit one. I worked hard to get rid of my yeshivish accent, and sound like a regular American. It gave me no small pleasure when Jews talking to me on the phone mistook me for a non-Jew, and used ‘Saturday’ instead of ‘Shabbos,’ or ‘holiday’ instead of ‘yom tov.’ It made me feel like I’d finally successfully jettisoned the part of me that was associated with the culture that drove me away from a religion I now loved.

Halacha and rationality keep me tethered to Judaism. They’ve given me a new outlook on Judaism, and a culture that appeals to me because of how contrary to the culture I’d been raised with it is. What makes me a Jew now? Not the shul I go to, or a rebbe I worship, a uniform, or a set of cultural norms to which I adhere. No, now Shabbos makes me a Jew. kashrus makes me a Jew. Tefillin makes me a Jew. Following the law, believing in God, and grappling with my faith makes me a Jew.

But there’s something missing from that kind of Judaism. There’s nothing that marks me as Jewish. Not really, anyway. My kippah is small, black, and knit. My tzitzis are tucked into my pants. There’s nothing about me that screams how proud I am to be a Jew. Except Chanukah. Because on Chanukah, following halacha necessitates a cultural statement. The requirement for pirsumei nisah necessarily makes the statement that I am proud to be a Jew.

When I open my window, and light the menorah for passersby, be they Jewish or not, to see, I am telling the world that I am proud of who and what I am. That I am proud to be part of God’s people. That as much as I complain about my fellow Jews, as much as I feel they still need to change, and as much as I hold them responsible for our social ills, I am still proud to count myself among them. Chanukah forces me to stop hiding behind nomism, behind rationality and the soapbox of my blog, and culturally express my Judaism.

Staring at the flickering candles of the menorah on my windowsill, I can’t help but feel the love, the connection to my people. I can’t help but be proud of what we can and should represent. Chanukah makes me love being a Jew and express it in a way no other holiday can. It may not be the most important holiday on our calendar, but it holds a very special place on mine.

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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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How Rosh Hashana Returned Me to My Culture

Author’s note: This started as a post I started writing in the Project Makom Facebook group, but I felt it deserved to be shared with a wider audience. I am deeply grateful to all of the organizers of this shabbaton, and to all of the people who make Project Makom possible. 

So a bit of thanks and a bit of confession. Firstly, thank you so much to Mindy, Yoel, and Shlomo. Rosh Hashana was incredible, and by far the most meaningful I’ve ever experienced. Thank you so much to everyone who came; it was great meeting all of you. Thank you for putting up with me, even if (and especially when) I was shouting my opinions at everyone.

Now for confession. I’ve always had a big problem with the cultural aspects of Jewish life. I love the ideology, and I’ve come to love God, and through loving God I’ve come to relate to the Torah and halacha, but the cultural aspects of Jewish observance have always made me feel somewhere between uncomfortable and repulsed. For example, zemiros on shabbos or yom tov make me want to be anywhere else but the table at which I’m sitting. Singing in shul makes me wish I hadn’t gone. Making a yehi ratzon on the symbolic Rosh Hashana foods make me feel stupid. It’s not because I’m some hyper-rationalist who thinks that religious practices based more on emotion and spirituality are less valid than logical legalism.

From age 11 onward, cultural religious expression in my family meant that life was about to get very dangerous, or at the very least very bizarre. Before age 11, when my grandfather was still alive, cultural religious expression was beautiful. Kiddush was soulful, zemiros were emotional, prayer in the home was inspirational. After he died, everything changed. He was no longer the family’s cultural spiritual leader, so to speak. That fell to my grandmother. She tried for a year or so, but we missed my grandfather, and as hard as she tried, she could never step into his shoes. Eventually she gave up. The zemiros stopped. The prayer stopped. Kiddush was mumbled. Shabbos meals were a family obligation rather than a blessed opportunity to bond. Religion became entirely ideological in practice; we lost the cultural, spiritual, hard to quantify but oh so real aspects of our family religious observance.

Which was fine. I had nothing against cultural religious expression, it just wasn’t something we did anymore at home.

But it wasn’t so simple. My mother had bipolar disorder, and mental illness has a funny way of manifesting in religious observance. When my mother was irreligious, it meant she was stable. Hearing the TV on shabbos, while heartbreaking and disgusting to a child raised to believe that religious Judaism is the only valid way to live life, meant that she was on her meds. It was when she was being frum that things got scary.

See, when she was stable, she knew that God didn’t care about her. She knew that God didn’t matter, and that being religious is for superstitious idiots or people graced with such privilege they’ve never had to wonder why God can be such a bastard while claiming to be benevolent. But when she was off her meds, she was just crazy enough to think God actually cared, to think that if she put on enough of a show, God might actually give her what she wanted. But things had to be just so, because God doesn’t stop being a tyrant just because you start listening. Everything had to be perfect for God to be impressed enough to give her what she wanted.

So if she was lighting candles, I had to stand there in silent contemplation. If she was singing zemiros, I had to either join or sit silently. If she was praying, I had to listen intently. If she was covering her hair, I had to dress as though I was standing before the King of Kings. Because the show had to be perfect if God was to be entertained enough to bestow God’s beneficence. And God help me if the show wasn’t perfect.

I came to hate all of it. Even after I stopped hating God. I still hated all of those little acts I’d been forced to put on. Even after I started loving God again, I was never able to bring myself to express that love the way everyone else finds so natural, but to me feels dangerous. I stopped singing in shul. I sat silently at the shabbos tables of my friends. I made excuses why I wasn’t singing when people pressed me to participate. I’d hurry through public expressions of religion as though I was ashamed of it, when really I was never ashamed of it, but terrified of it.

Somehow, though, that was different this Rosh Hashana. I don’t know what it was, but I felt safe, comfortable, and accepted enough, to dip my toe in the water again, and join in not only the legal, halachic observances of Judaism, but the cultural and spiritual observances and expressions of Judaism as well. And it was ok. It was scary as all hell, but it was ok. Nothing happened. It felt ok. Like I was finding something I’d lost and come to fear. And I know it’s weird, and a little off putting to attach this kind of serious significance to something as casual and lighthearted as a friendly roadtrip to Atlanta for Rosh Hashana, but in a sense this marks a milestone in my life, where I can say that a part of my religion has finally been unlocked for me – a part I’ve really missed.

And now we’re back to thanks. Thank you all for being a part of that, even if you didn’t know it was happening. Thank you all for being the ones who were there to share this experience with me, even if I was the only one to experience it. You’re all very special people and, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to thank you for being a part of changing my life.

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Sex Segregation Gone Mad

Update – 7/10/2015: Presumably after seeing the attention this story got, the person whom I had this conversation with called and left a message saying that the call was a prank. I’m leaving it up with this disclaimer because I find the fact that many parts of this story, particularly the extreme sexism and racism, are plausible very telling. 

Author’s note: I wouldn’t ordinarily post something like this on my blog. I try to keep this blog away from anything that could potentially be used to bash any group without offering any constructive criticism. The reason I’m posting this is not to imply that this is at all the norm. As noted below, this was the first time in the history of our driving school that such a thing happened. That said, the fact that such a thing could happen indicates that we’ve reached a point in our obsession with tznius (modesty) and sex segregation that can create the feelings expressed by the customer. 

“I had a problem with my road test yesterday, one you scheduled for me.”
“Ok,” I replied. “What happened?”
“When I came there to the road test site, a woman got into the car.”
“Ok…”
“I didn’t want to be in the car with a woman, so I asked her if there were any men I could take the test with, and she said there weren’t any available.”
“Ok…”
“So I asked to speak to her supervisor, and she said that he wasn’t available.”
By this point my right eyebrow was already working its way up toward my hairline.

“I asked her if she had a towel,” he continued, as if the words coming out of his mouth made perfect sense, “I wanted to put it up between us as a mechitza (partition used to separate the sexes). She gave me a funny look.”
At this point I’d covered the receiver with my hand, and was failing miserably at controlling my giggles.
“She looked at me funny, and said that she wouldn’t be able to see me. That was the point, I told her. She gave me a dirty look and told me I couldn’t take the test.”
I fought back the laughter as I blurted, “Hold on a second, please,” and put the customer on hold.

I ran over to my boss’ desk, laughing uncontrollably, face beet red, tears already forming around my eyes. My boss saw me laughing and started laughing himself. He motioned with his hand, asking what had happened. We’ve gotten enough weird calls in the past that he knew something was up.

After about a minute I regained my composure enough to tell him what I’d just heard, punctuated by more giggles of course. “Can you please do me a favor and talk to this guy?” I asked him, “I don’t think I can control myself.”
“Sorry,” my boss replied through his own belly laughs, “you take care of this.”
He ran into the front office to tell the secretary what had happened, closing the door behind him.

I composed myself and lifted the receiver.

“It’s the three weeks, you know, you shouldn’t have the music on the phone.”
“Huh?” I replied, not quite sure what he was referring to.
“The music when I was just on hold. It’s the three weeks; you should change that.”
“That’s a good point,” I replied. I hadn’t considered that.
B’kitzur (in short),” he continued, “I want a refund. She didn’t let me take the test.”
“Hold on, please, let me ask my boss.”

I put the receiver down again and went into the front office. My boss was telling the secretaries about the phone call. I interrupted him to finish the story, laughing as I told it. I told my boss that the customer wanted a refund, and he said absolutely not.
“Tell him they only have men in Monticello,” My boss said. They don’t, but why not make him drive.

“Hello?” I said, picking up the receiver, “I’m sorry, but we won’t be able to give you a refund.”
“Why not?” he demanded, “It isn’t right that I should have to take a road test with an isha (woman) and a tumadikeh goy (unclean non-Jew) that I should have to sit in a car with a tumadikeh goy!”
Flustered at hearing such vehemence against someone whose only crime is not being Jewish I said, “You live in a goyishe country. Do you cross the street every time you see a goy (non-Jew) coming toward you?
“No, but in the street I can look down at the sidewalk, I don’t have to see them.”
“Well,” I said patiently, although I was reaching the end of my tether, “We live in a goyishe (non-Jewish) country, and if you want to get a license in this country, you’re gonna have to take a road test with a goy who might also be a woman.”
“You don’t understand,” he replied, “she was so anti-Semitic! She looked at me like I was crazy, just because I’m Jewish and I needed a man to give me the test!”
I’d been patient, but this was pushing it. I have very little tolerance for people crying ‘anti-Semitism’ when it plainly isn’t. “No,” I shouted, “it wasn’t anti-Semitism. She had literally never heard anyone ask for that before, and found the request strange! You are the only person who has ever, in the history of this driving school or any other, who has asked a road test examiner if they could have a man replace them! It’s not even yichud (a law prohibiting two people of the opposite sex who are not married or immediately related from being alone together) at all! It’s an open car, with clear windows, driving around in a busy city! Ask your rav (rabbi), there’s absolutely no problem with it! All the rest of our students are just as frum (religiously observant) as you are, and none of them have ever had a problem with this! It’s not anti-Semitism; it’s just you!”
“The problem is you, and your whole driving school,” he shouted, “you’re all choteh umachti es harabim (one who not only sins, but drives others to sin)!”

At which point I hung up on him.

You can’t make this stuff up, people.

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