Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ode to Midwestern Snow

Here I sit
Watching the snow lazily float
Towards the ground
Outside my Midwestern abode

Like the snowflakes
The cars slowly float to their destinations
respectively, of course
And I am shocked
By the lack of fecal matter

It's nice to visit the Midwest
And have a taste of winter
But not for too long

Monday, January 10, 2011

An Ode to California

A psalm by e
In California is my residence; I shall not want
I lounge in green parks; to calm beaches thy freeway leadeth me
My soul is refreshed in the weather for which thou hast acquired a great name
Ye, though I walk through Death Valley, I fear no evil, for it is dry heat
Thy celebrities and thy movie industry they entertain me
Prepare for me shade in the presence of the sun; anoint my head with sunscreen
Though in the "winter" thy gutters overflow
Surely sun and clement weather shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in California for long days

Friday, January 7, 2011

More Suspension of Disbelief

I usually ignore the letters Rabbi Wagner sends his alumni, but this one grabbed my attention and didn't let go. (Although I did skim. The rabbi is a tad a verbose.) Enjoy!

Boruch G. was a regular chassidisher Lubavitcher bochur. He went through the system, learning diligently in Yeshiva, and internalizing the teachings and ideals of chassidus. When he came of age, he married a girl of equal caliber, and, predictably, they both resolved to dedicate their lives to shlichus.
Fortunately, just over a year after their marriage, the young couple found a city that would become their “post”. The city, in Middle America, was not especially large, nor did it boast a sizeable Jewish population. There were no known wealthy philanthropists residing there, nor was there much of a foundation on which to build.
But it had its’ Jewish community, who were in urgent need of the services that a Chabad House could provide.
Their work was cut out for them. They had their shlichus.
Before long, however, they encountered an unexpected obstacle. The small Jewish community was already being serviced by a Conservative and a Reconstructionist Temple, as well as a Synagogue that was the remnant of what had once been an Orthodox Synagogue. The leaders of each of these communities were very wary of the newcomer, who they feared, perhaps justifiably, would be an unwelcome competition to them. Their best defense, they decided, would be a concerted and timely offence.
Subsequently, shortly after the G. family settled into their new home, they were shocked to see some very negative publicity about Lubavitch in the local press. While stopping short of open warfare, the article went to great lengths to portray Lubavitch as outdated and queer, their customs as antiquated, and the religious services they offered as medieval. Boruch’s first visits to local community members turned out to be an uphill battle, being met with indifference or open hostility.
Sadly, the G’s realized that the minds of the populace had already been poisoned against them without their even being given a chance and their initial enthusiasm was quickly being replaced by frustration and disillusionment. At every opportunity, there would be negative publicity about Chabad in general and the new shluchim in particular. Any strange or bizarre story involving Lubavitchers managed to find its’ way to the sleepy little city’s newspapers.
To be honest, they even considered throwing in the towel and starting anew somewhere else – they, after all, were plainly not wanted here. But their mashpi’im, and any older shluchim that they consulted with, strongly negated this idea, and deep down they knew as well that this was not the approach that the Rebbe had taught.
So, the G’s held an urgent staff meeting, attended by Boruch, his wife, and their baby daughter, at which they resolved to renew and redouble their efforts, and work tirelessly to undo the damage that had preceded them here, and create a new image of Lubavitch that would command respect, admiration and love. Indeed, no sooner was the meeting adjourned, and the young family went on the offensive to secure their place in the inhospitable neighborhood.
Slowly but surely their efforts bore fruit, and people began to see the G’s for who they were, and to start viewing the negativity with skepticism and suspicion. Gradually, their circle of acquaintances became a widening circle of loyal friends, admirers, and (perhaps most importantly) staunch supporters. To be sure, not everyone was rejoicing in the turnaround. Their original adversaries were chagrined that their plans were thwarted, and they continued to seek every opportunity to undermine the young couple.
But the shluchim refused to be provoked, retaining their positivity and friendliness to all. And this approach was clearly paying off. The distrust and rejection that they had encountered when they had first arrived, had become replaced with deep respect and love. They remembered their early troubles, and thanked Hashem every day for the wondrous metamorphosis.
The turning point came some five and one half years after they had embarked on their shlichus. After much planning and arranging – and a large dosage of help from Above – they managed to organize their first major public event. It was to be a massive public menorah lighting in a high class city park, that would be attended by the mayor, various politicians and dignitaries, and practically all of the ‘who’s who’ of the Jewish community. Their first event on such a scale – or even close to it -, it was expected to catapult them into new heights and status.
The standard legal challenges and red tape were overcome, and the Chabad house for weeks was the scene of nervous energy and frenzied activity in anticipation of the momentous event.
Finally the big day arrived. With a beating heart, Boruch thought about anything that could possibly go wrong, and davened fervently to Hashem that there should be no last minute glitches.
But he needn’t have worried.
As people began to arrive, they realized that it was turning into a success beyond anything they could have hoped for. Everyone, but everyone, of any importance was there, and the mood was celebratory. Boruch spent a few minutes shaking hands with the more important guests. Suddenly he had another pleasant surprise. Not only were the press and radio stations recording the event, but there were two television crews filming relentlessly.
The highlights of the event would be viewed by millions of people on national TV!
Immediately on schedule, the formal part of the program began. Mr. M, one of the most prominent members of the Jewish community, introduced the event. Warmly praising the Rabbi and Rebbetzin, he made subtle references to the early accusations against them, and to how wrong they proved to be. He then introduced the (black) Mayor, who spoke with tremendous enthusiasm about the wonderful work of Chabad, and how crucial the Rabbi was for the community. When Boruch went over to shake his hand and thank him, the Mayor spontaneously reached over, and warmly embraced him.
Boruch was overcome, while vaguely aware of the furious whirring of the cameras. It registered at the edge of his consciousness that this was a picture that would undoubtedly take up the front page of all of the local publications! Then the moment was over, and it was Boruch’s turn to speak, just prior to the actual lighting of the menorah.
He was thinking that things couldn’t get any better, as he confidently strode over to the microphone, while reaching into his pocket for his speech.
But his hand was groping in vain. There was no speech to be found in his pocket.
For a split second, his hand froze in his pocket, when, to his horror, it suddenly dawned on him why there was no speech.
And the least of his problems was the missing speech!
You see, Boruch had recently purchased two brand new suits, in a sale at the local Gap store. Dutifully, he sent them both off to be checked for shatnez (a service not available yet in his own city). They were returned with the verdict: one was OK, while the other was 100% shatnez. So he used the good one, and put the other aside to be returned.
What Boruch realized in that terrifying moment, while reaching unsuccessfully for the elusive speech, was that, in his haste and nervousness that morning, he had inadvertently put on the wrong suit, the non-kosher suit, the shatnez suit!
After being alerted to this fact by the missing speech, it took only another split second for him to verify this fact 100% conclusively. He was, without any doubt, wearing a suit of pure shatnez. Shatnez d’orayso!
Remember, Boruch was standing in a large, open public area. There was nowhere to go, and nowhere to hide. The attention of several hundred people in attendance was all on him. The reporters and television cameras were recording his every move.
They were watching and waiting, what is he going to do now.
What indeed?!
He remembered, instantly, the halacha (brochos 19B, Yoreh Deiah 303), that one who discovers that he is wearing shatnez must remove it, even if he is in a public place (אין עצה ואין חכמה ואין תבונה נגד ה'). He knew that there was no loophole to get around this. It was an issur d’orayso r”l.
On the other hand, how could he even imagine doing such a thing (he was vaguely conscious of the fact that, were he to take such a step, there would most definitely be another choice for the front-page picture, - if the censors would let it by).
Never mind his embarrassment, never mind that he would probably go to jail, never mind that all the work that he did all these years would go down the drain in an instant, what he was contemplating would amount to a chilul Hashem of unprecedented proportions! And, on national television, no less!
[And this was not one of those places where he would score points for disrobing in front of an audience . . ]
He would, with that one move, confirm the worst of the accusations made against him. And much worse that the worst accusations.
Yet, he knew that he is first and foremost a Jew, and his first responsibility is to the Eibishter.
But, on the other hand, isn’t it the Eibishter who wants all of these people to have a positive perspective of Yiddishkeit (so that they would start practicing it)? Isn’t it for the Eibishter’s sake that he put in all the work, that he was so keen on making a good impression? Wasn’t it the name of the Eibishter that was at risk of being desecrated in such a terrible way? Could that be what He wants?
On the other hand, he knew that the Eibishter made it quite clear what He wants, through Torah and Mitzvos. Could he consider disobeying them?
But, then he thought, what right did he have to worry about his own frumkeit at the expense of the religious observance of hundreds of people, at the expense of destroying any chance of any Chabad Rabbi ever establishing himself in this city forever!
He reminded himself of the gemoro (Nozir 23B) “Gedolah aveirah l’shmoh”, an aveirah for a good cause is sometimes virtuous. He further reminded himself of the story with the melamed of the Rebbe, who, when discovered learning on Tisha B’Av, said ‘I’ll go to gehinom anyway, let them punish me for this; - for learning Torah’.
‘I can say the same’, Boruch mused, ‘I’m ready to go to gehinom, to endure any punishment imaginable, as long as I don’t have to be responsible for such a horrible scandal!’
All of these musings took less than a second, while Boruch stood there, at the microphone, facing the cameras, a big smile still on his face, but more torn than he’d ever been in his life.
What to do?!
He felt as if he’s aged a hundred years in that moment!
He could just imagine the headlines, the reactions, if he chose one course of action, and the resulting desecration of all that he held holy.
But to deliberately, knowingly, transgress an issur d’oyraysao r”l?!
What, indeed, does he do?
What should he do?
What would YOU do? And why?
Since I have to run now, I’ll stop here for now, and eagerly await your responses.
L’chaim! May we always have the wisdom and courage to make the right decisions (and when in doubt, to consult with our Rav, mashpia, or chassidisher Rov, and act accordingly, an option that wasn’t available to Boruch under the circumstances). And may the Eibishter show His Wisdom and Courage in making the proper, vital, crucial and necessary decision NOW, to bring us the Geula HoAmitis VeHashleima through Moshiach Tzidkeinu TUMYM!!!

I suppose this is fiction. Had I known all along, I don't think I would have been engaged enough to read it. Suspension of disbelief is tricky, eh?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

More on Suspension of Disbelief; Why Inception is a Good Movie

An observation regarding suspension of disbelief, from the source of all knowledge
Some find it strange that while some audience members took issue with the flimsiness of Superman's disguise, they didn't take issue with the idea of the existence of a superbeing whose only weakness was kryptonite. One arguing from the theory of suspension of disbelief would contend that while Superman's abilities and vulnerabilities are the foundational premises the audience accepted as their part of the initial deal; they did not accept a persistent inability for otherwise normal characters to recognize a close colleague solely because of changes in clothing.

Gary Larson discussed the question with regard to his comic strip, The Far Side; he noted that readers wrote him to complain that a male mosquito referred to his "job" sucking blood when it is in fact the females that drain blood, but that the same readers accepted that the mosquitoes (in "fact") live in houses, wear clothes, and speak English.
We sort of tell the author/producer, "We'll allow you to break these rules, but everything else must be realistic." So science fiction writers are allowed to postulate the existence of faster-than-light travel, but not witches, for example. As I wrote earlier, when the author surprises you and tells you you need to suspend more disbelief, it pulls you out of the story and lessens your engagement. Also, a mid-story request for more suspension of disbelief is poor storytelling technique.

This is why I liked Inception. (I watched it one and a half times on the flight to California.) If you haven't watched Inception, then I fear you won't get the rest of this post. Oh well. Your loss. The loss is mutual.

From the first (real) scene (after the introductory stuff which you cannot understand the first time watching the movie) you know exactly how this movie world is different from the real world: people are able to climb into other people's dreams and fool around. Everything else in the movie makes perfect sense once you accept that premise. If extraction were possible, dreams within dreams would also be possible, the "kick" would work the way it does, the strange aberrations of the laws of physics when the van bounces would be unavoidable, the projections would act the way they do, and all that. It's really a well-thought-out movie.

But wait! Not only is Inception as good as realistic fiction, it's better! In fiction, there's this idea that if you really, really want something, the universe conspires to make it happen. For example, if a snowstorm keeps your mother-in-law from getting the birthday card you mailed her, the literary critics will blame it on your dislike of your mother-in-law. Or if you really are "misyached" with the person who locked a safe, you'll be able to correctly guess the code. That's non-realistic and stretches my suspension of disbelief. But in Inception it's totally legitimate that Cobbs' issues with his wife mess up his work and that they expect Fisher to remember a code that's never been told to him. They're in the dream world, so of course the "universe" brings about whatever the subject's and the dreamer's subconscious wants.

So I was able to get really involved in Inception. When they get on the plane, my heart was pounding. When they landed on the first level (in the pouring rain) I almost died from nervousness. And when Cobbs finally sees his kids, my eyes were wet. It was just so right.

On a side note, I'd be very appreciative if anybody could shed light on Arthur's role. Is he really just a dumbass like Eames (the forger dude) makes him out to be, or is there some sechel behind his sharp suits and formal, know-it-all talk?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Life of a Kofer

When going through my regular routine, I have these mental "automatic reminders." For example, every time I walk out of my apartment, there's a ding in my mind, and I ask myself if I have my keys, metrocard, CCNY ID, phone, and wallet. Every time I walk into a public bathroom, a ding goes off, and I check that there are urinals, to reassure myself that I'm in the men's room. If you think about it, you can probably come up with some automatic reminders that you have in your mind.

So Friday night I went with my brother-in-law to shul. We arrived a few minutes before kabbalas shabbos, so there really was no reason for me to daven mincha, but my brother-in-law was davening mincha, and there was nothing else to do, so I turned to page 96 and started saying Ashrei. In middle of Ashrei, a ding went off. It was the did-you-have-kavannah-for-"posech es yadech"? ding. I chuckled inside and ignored it.