If you saw him screaming like I saw him screaming, you would also stare--no, gape!--and hide your eyes in disappointed disbelief.
You would also grab your child with that firm, horrified look that said, "What a nut! Let's get away from him!" and walk away, sneaking a backward glance at the way his eyes bulged out and his voice shook the neighborhood.
"Doesn't he have any shame?" you might say, aloud or to yourself. "To yell like that? And at a young child no less!"
The boy, caught in the crossfire of the angry, bellowing voice, doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry. He stands, almost transfixed, by the raging, smashing anger as the words crash down upon him.
"You leave my wife and kids ALONE! Do you hear me?"
It looks like any moment now, those trembling hands will reach out and strike the slight boy whose eyes are slightly widened now, maybe anticipating the blows.
You would also wonder at the unchecked anger, at the hostility and venomous words.
But I don't.
I sigh. His wife and children are regulalry singled out for mistreatment. He fights an uphill battle every day. For acceptance. For tolerance. For respect. This boy is just one in a hundred boys who has hurled sticks and stones and ugly words. The roiling rage today is just a vented slit in a pot filled with steam that has been simmering since this shaking, aching man met and married the noble woman I am proud to call a friend. Whose skin is black like a midnight that cannot ease into dawn. Until we all wake up.
There are times, numerous times, in my life, where I have been hit with a new idea that challenges several old ideas I have previously presumed true and correct. Today is one of those times. I thought I'd share this latest experience with you and see, well, you'll see what I want you to see :-) in a moment!
It began rather innocently as I chatted with my housekeeper (a fancy way of saying "cleaning lady", no? To me, "housekeeper" conjures up images of a live-in maid in a starched apron who keeps my house spic 'n span 24/7. Reality check: think older Moroccan woman whom I love dearly, swishing around a sponja rag for a few hours a week in a vain attempt at keeping my house clean for a scant day if we're lucky!) this morning about, y'know, the things you chat about when one of you is wiping countertops and the other one is attempting to finish a chapter of her serial story (!).
And then we got onto The Subject, which means that I asked her what the custom is amongst her family and friends regarding gift-giving at simchas (happy occasions). That's when she let the bomb drop--but let me preface this a bit. My cleaner is, as I mentioned before, a wonderful middle-aged Israeli woman of Moroccan descent, which means she is Sefardic, extremely family-oriented, and probably a wonderful cook. It also means that her culture is very different than mine, just by virtue of the fact that I'm Ashkenazic, North American born-and-bred, family-oriented in a very different way (she spends Shabbos with her parents, for example, EVERY SINGLE WEEK!). In fact, the only strong similarity between the two of us is that I'm also a great cook :-). Oh--and we're both sweet (another smiley face would go here if I hadn't already used up my quota for this blogpost!).
So what's up with gift-giving in her family? I wondered. She's making a bar mitzvah in a month, so the question wasn't exactly from left-field. I just wanted to know what the expectation was as far as a gift goes since I'll be showing up and I want to be socially correct. Pretty suave, I thought. Well, let me just preface this by saying that I am accustomed to giving actual gifts, rather than money, for a few reasons. Firstly, I think it's more intimate and thoughtful. Secondly, I'm always uncomfortable with price-point; if I give 100 shekels, the recipient knows I gave 100 shekels. If they consider 100 shekels a nice amount, then I'm fine, generous, and may even be invited back to the next simcha! But if they think 100 shekels is kind of measly, then, well, it doesn't really reflect very well on me, does it?
On the other hand, if I buy a beautiful crystal dish for 100 shekels and have it wrapped gorgeously, then it has definite eye appeal and the recipient isn't thinking about the price tag and the economics of the gift. At least that's the way I look at it.
Well, here's Dahlia's take: they give money. Cash. And lots of it. Not only that, but they write down exactly what amount everyone gave--and then MATCH it when they're invited to the other guy's simcha. That means that if you give me 400 shekels for my daughter's bat mitzvah (hint, hint), I will then give you 400 shekels when you invite me to your son's bar mitzvah. It's just that simple.
"And if you don't have the money, you give it anyway!" she tells me, leaning on the sponja stick.
I was really kind of, well, between being blown away and stymied (a relatively tumultuous place to be, as you might imagine!). Is that really what a simcha is? Giving a gift that is really just a credit note--an IOU until you can "pay back"? And, she informed me, even if you don't attend the simcha, you send the money by hook or by crook. In my perspective, this system would make me regard every incoming invitation like it's a bill. Can I really afford to be friends with so many people, when 4-600 shekels is considered the normal gift to give?
I realize my lovely cleaning woman's world may be a bit extreme to myself and many of you readers, but pray tell, what do you give as a gift, and how do you feel about it?
As a writer, feedback is a nearly daily fact of life. As a writer with a mission and a message, negative feedback is par for the course. So it's no surprise, really, when irate readers send in their complaints about my serialized stories. Those of you who followed the controversy over Shattered Glass will know what I mean when I say that it seems some people would rather bury their heads in the sand than face reality--and solutionize.
I think it is admirable when people ostensibly have pious and worthy aspirations in voicing their opposition to my work. However, I question the basic premise of the prevailing argument which says: "Why hang out dirty laundry in public?"
How else are you going to motivate someone to get that laundry clean?
Is it scandalous to admit that there are problems in our communities? Does it take away from the beauty and purity of our Nation, from our strength and growth when we call attention to issues that need to be addressed? How does it help the thousands who are suffering from abuse, which is what my current serial, Charades, discusses, by pretending it does not exist? Is it right to bury our heads in the sand and hope the problem goes away, rather than deal with it gently and sensitively through the wonderful vehicle of fiction?
Can not our hearts be firmly rooted in heaven even as we lift our heads out of the sand?
Let me begin this post with some very heartfelt, very dramatic words: Our Kollel years were the best ones of my life. (For the uninitiated, Kollel is a yeshivah where married men study for varying amounts of time; they study Torah and Talmud and may work to earn rabbinic ordination.) My husband and I embraced a kollel lifestyle right after our wedding and it was pure, absolute bliss. He learned all day; I worked to support us and felt privileged to do so. I am not being corny or kitschy; I really, wholly, and completely loved every minute of his full-time Torah learning. I feel like Kollel learning is such a noble, incredible pursuit and that it sustains the entire universe. Now, for those of you who may be wondering if there is some foreshadowing or preface going on here, you are highly astute.
Recently, a comment was made to me thusly: "Why are your serial stories bashing Kollel?" My head jerked up; my heart leapt into my throat. I was taken aback, really, especially in light of the above paragraph. When I finally gathered my wits to attempt to respond to the accusation, I first pointed out that Green Fences was definitely nowhere within the category of "kollel bashing". If anything, Green Fences showed the beauty and importance of kollel, which one Batya Sternheim attempted to deny. In Shattered Glass, my current serialized story, the protagonist, Betzalel Myers, does learn in Kollel, and perhaps that is what prompted the specious comment about my "kollel-bashing". Firstly, to extrapolate from one fictional story which centers on a man who happens to be learning in Kollel, the assumption that the author is a wanton, shameless "kollel-basher" seems not only ridiculous, but downright rude. Secondly, and this is much more interesting, I realized that as a writer, I am faced with a curious Kollel konundrum.
You see, the yeshivah/chareidi world today has a grey area when it comes to Kollel learning vs. working. This is the feisty fodder for many a discussion and even a serial story (think Black and White by Dov Haller and, er, Green Fences, by Riva Pomerantz :-)). While we all agree that learning Torah in Kollel is a most worthy pursuit, we also must acknowledge that not everyone is capable of this occupation and also, that we need mechanchim (teachers), rabbonim (rabbis), and countless other Torah Jews to fill other roles and serve as other professionals within our communities. My husband Joel, for example, is a school psychologist and cognitive-behavioral therapist. In his capacity, he helps countless people in our community who are struggling with very difficult, real issues. Yes, he cherishes his Kollel days, but now he is performing his avodas Hashem (service of G-d) in this venue.
I have often commented on the enormous, inexplicable power of fiction--to effect change, to provoke thought, and to spark discussion. More so than articles, workshops, and lectures, fiction has this uncanny ability to get through to people, most likely because it is non-threatening, interesting, and entertaining. I use fiction as a tool, a vehicle for an important message (in case you're wondering if there's any mind control going on in my work :-)). When it comes to writing serialized stories in frum magazines such as Mishpacha, the writer, when creating a plot, comes smack up against a huge, steel door. That door is the Kollel Konundrum. Essentially, since fiction is so powerful, and since our community is so highly attuned to nuance, and since the subject of Kollel vs. Working is so alive and conflicted, a writer who chooses a plot where the protagonist is working might be misconstrued as espousing working as a preferred occupation, which would be a slight against Kollel, which would be definitely not okay. Whew, long sentence. Therefore, choosing a character who is learning in Kollel, aside from immediately creating reader rapport because most of our readers identify strongly with a Kollel lifestyle (at least at one point in their lives), is also an endorsement of Kollel. Does that mean that by creating a character who is in Kollel and who is struggling, I am attempting to malign Kollel or suggest, chas v'shalom, that Betzalel's story is pretty typical or indicative of widespread problems within the Kollel community? Of course not! Betzalel's issues ARE, unfortunately, widespread within our community at-large, but certainly not specifically a Kollel problem. Betzalel could have just as easily been an accountant with a night chavrusah (Torah study partner) and the rest of Shattered Glass could have stayed exactly the same. But given the sensitivity of the Kollel vs. working issue, I opted to steer clear of it. Apparently, however, it's difficult to side-step.
What are your thoughts?
This is gonna be a short post, being written under the ominous shadow of a mountain of deadlines, but it's been so long since I've blogged I just HAD to bite the bullet. Yuck. Where DID that expression come from, anyway?
This blog is about society and change and comfort zone. There. No foreshadowing, no carefully layered nuances and plot-building. No prologue or preface. Basically, I'm giving it all away at once. As my grandmother says, "How d'ya like that?" :-)
Our Sages teach us a principle: "Oy l'rasha, oy l'shchainoh"--Woe is to an evildoer; woe to his neighbor! And conversely, "Tov latzaddik, tov l'shchainoh"--Good for the righteous person; good for his neighbor. In other words, we are creatures of the society in which we live. As someone with a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak in her, I have balked at this principle. I have definitely felt capable of bucking the trend, of swimming against the current. But I have come to see that even if, by and large, one can continue to hold his or her own against the immediate environment, there are subtle changes that penetrate. For the good and for the bad.
There are so many personal examples I've witnessed in myself, on both sides of the fence, and every time I try to bring one to mind here it just seems to eclipse or take away from the others. So I guess I'll just leave the phenomenon open-ended. The bottom line is that I have noticed, without a doubt, that the society or societies in which I live and mingle with definitely influence me. And "society" in this case is a conglomerative umbrella term (can you tell it's raining out?!)--in this context I mean it as a catch-all word for community, neighborhood, apartment building, friends circle, synagogue members, work colleagues, grocery store personnel--whatever. The changes can be permanent and specific--like choosing to eat a certain hechsher (kosher supervision and certification) of chicken, or temporary and relatively banal--like wearing a more chic-looking outfit if I'm going to attend a wedding of a certain type of friend. But it certainly give me pause to know that, to a certain extent, I am a drifting boat and something else is moving the oars.
I worry that we may not take this reality seriously enough. We may not consider it with the appropriate amount of forethought when we make a decision--which city and community to live in, where to work, which block to buy on, where to send our kids to school, even which Gym to work out in or which company to interview at.
I guess the metaphor for this would be pores. Our skin is full of these pores. They absorb and release all sorts of stuff, some of it good and some of it bad. Is it such a stretch to imagine them taking in the intangible, the spiritual? What do you think?
About Riva Pomerantz
I'm a freelance writer, widely published in several magazines including the internationally-distributed Ami Magazine and Mishpacha Jewish Family Weekly. Riva's work also appears on the award-winning website www.aish.com, amongst others. You can buy my books here.