Isaac Kaplan

"Is it any wonder I've got too much time on my hands?"

Sunday, December 31, 2006

America's Comeback

I don't like being one of those bloggers who just links to other stories, but the Wall Street Journal had a great piece about one of my favorite '70's guilty pleasures, America. After being maligned as a cheap imitation of CSN and Neil Young (especially on "A Horse With No Name," they're finally getting their due.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Other People's Aveiros, pt. 1 -- Being Judgmental

When we see someone doing an aveira, very often there's a sense of anger that kicks in. How can those two not be shomer negiah? How can that married woman not cover her hair? How can that guy miss minyan so often? Maybe we'll even back up our convictions with a line from Chazal that discusses severe consequences for anyone who transgresses that particular aveira.

Based on Rav Dessler's revolutionary approach to bechira (Michtav M'Eliyahu Vol. 1, p. 113 - Strive for Truth, Vol. 2, p. 52) , though, I believe none of us has any right to pass judgment on the aveiros of others. Rav Dessler discusses how each of us has a nekudas habechira, which he compares to a battlefront. As all Risk fans know, in a war, the front will often shift, depending upon the successes and failures of each side. Sometimes you retreat, sometimes you cover ground. But ultimately, what matters is where the fighting happens - at the battle front.

Rav Dessler says that our "battlefront" in choosing between good and evil comes "where the truth as the person sees it confronts the illusions of falsehood within him."

Rav Aryeh Carmell expounds on this in "Strive for Truth":

"Behira only comes into play when one is tempted to go against the truth as one sees it, and the forces on either side are more or less equally balanced. The point at which this equilibrium is reached obviously varies with the individual and depends upon many factors, such as herdity, environment, education, etc."

For example, Rav Dessler says that many of us don't think about driving on Shabbos or eating at Chili's - because we've been raised that way. There's no bechira there. On the flip side, many people just speak lashon hora because it's so ingrained in their system; they don't even realize it's wrong.

He adds that the bechira line often shifts from place to place, often as a consequence of one's positive or negative choices (which, he says, is the pshat in the line in Pirkei Avos: "Mitzvah Goreres Mitzvah, Aveira Goreres Aveira"). And one is responsible for the shifts in his points of bechira that occur as a result of choices he made.

What comes out is that we can't cast blame on others for their sins, because everyone has a different level of bechira. Do we know what x's level of bechira is? Do we know all of the factors that went into his level of bechira? Think about the examples in the opening paragraph. Is it within that woman's point of bechira to choose whether to cover her hair or not? Is it within that guy's level of bechira to choose to go to minyan? We don't know. Only God knows.

Now, I know some people will say, "well, I know x, and he grew up in a very frum home, went to chareidi yeshivos, and now, he plays poker, hangs out with women all the time. Don't be naive; he for sure knows better! He probably started off with a higher level of bechira, and lowered it because he doesn't give a darn!"

But that point of view is extremely short-sighted. Rav Carmell lists numerous factors that play into where the nekudas habechira lies. We don't know what kind of emotional issues x was born with, or was challenged with while growing up. I think psychological factors are HUGE here. And that's what part 2 is all about.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Two Faces of Mashgichim

After blasting the sems yesterday, time to give the yeshivas some equal time.

When I was in yeshiva, I always wanted to connect with the mashgiach. He seemed like such a holy, warm, and caring person. And many of the good guys seemed to be very close with him. However, I never connected with any of mashgichim I had.

Part of the reason might be because I didn't have any huge problems in my yeshiva days, thank God. Some guys were breaking up with their girlfriends or fighting with their parents about college. I had more minor issues: I was a perfectionist, didn't enjoy learning as much as others, and couldn't shake off the bug for sports, music, and the occasional tv show.

But the main reason I couldn't connect was as follows: when I would hear them give a mussar shmuz, the ideals they set were so lofty that I felt like a piece of crap hearing their depiction of a true "ben torah." How could I approach the mashgiach if I read yesterday's New York Post, and he just ripped anyone who reads that rag? How can I tell him what I do wrong? Won't he glare and yell at me, and tell me I'm getting a first-class ticket straight to hell? And let's say I tell him I don't really enjoy learning? I'm gonna give the man a heart attack!

So I figured, better not to risk anything. And I kept reading the Post, listening to rock, and staying out of the mashgiach's office.

At the same time, however, many guys would come out of the mashgiach's office saying how down-to-earth the man was. One friend discussed his passion for movies with the mashgiach, and I was impressed with what I heard. (Long story short, the mashgiach didn't tell the guy to quit cold turkey, as I would've expected.)

But in the end, I was confused. I thought, "okay, maybe the guy is down-to-earth, but he doesn't know me at all. Maybe he thinks I'm on a really high level and will tell me never to touch the paper again. And I feel far from ready to do that." So in spite of this guy's positive experience, I still stayed away.

But in the end, I don't see how their current approach is effective. (I'm sure they have a mesorah for their approach, but I certainly don't comprehend the effectiveness of it for today's times.) A mussar shmooze with such lofty goals and chumros will not appeal to the bums, who are probably spacing out, if they've even bothered to attend. The shtark guys aren't coming within 10 feet of a Billy Joel album, so there's nothing to worry about there. That leaves the guys in the middle. But if the vitroilic mussar is reaching for the stars, many of the middle guys will get discouraged and just dismiss it. And that'll just keep them farther and farther away from ever entering the mashgiach's office.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Seminaries and the Shidduch Crisis

I think I have the solution to the shidduch crisis. Where's Pinny Lipschutz of the Yated? This is front-page material.

Close down the sems. Lock 'em up. Send everyone home.

Many times, girls come back from sem with all sorts of ideals. Their heads are in the clouds, and there's a lot they want to accomplish. And let's forget the girls who want learning guys for now -- even the ones that want working guys, they'll want someone who will learn two hours a night, never miss a minyan, talks to his rebbi all the time, be "spiritual," (whatever that means) and someone who will say divrei torah at the Shabbos table for two hours. And he must never, ever want to walk into a movie theater.

Sounds lovely. Problem is, who are these 19-year-old girls getting set up with? 22-23 year old guys who aren't idealists anymore. And many people change a lot from 19 to 23.

Very often, the guys have been in America for a few years. If the guy plans on working, chances are he's doing the yeshiva/college thing. When I was in Israel, I also left feeling very idealistic. At one point, I wanted to learn three hours a day, no matter what I was doing. When you get to college, though, and you see what the real world is all about, you start seeing what a struggle it is. And those ideals get tempered by reality. They get tempered by the fact that, in the frum world in 2006, there is no 9-5 job that will earn you a decent living (and we're not even talking about having a mansion with a Lexus in the driveway). And unfortunately, between work, a wife, a family, and simply, exhaustion, it's not always so easy to put in those two hours a night.

So the girls go out with a guy whose views are such, and they think he's a shaygetz. So forget it. A few years later, she starts coming around with her hashkafos, but by that time, the bitterness and frustration of shidduchim have set in, which make finding the zivug all the more difficult. The propoganda of the sems is causing a lot of trouble and frustration.

Is it important to be idealistic? Absolutely. You've gotta have goals in life, and something you want to accomplish. But like everything else in life, moderation is key. And the sems have to tell the girls what a struggle raising a family and making a living can be, and how to have appropriate ideals in that context.

And as I've said many times, in the long run, hashkafos aren't that important. I think midos are much more important, because people's views change. And someone with good midos will probably be more amenable to change and compromise than a jerk who happens to have the "perfect" hashkafos.

Two alternate suggestions:

- There are some girls that are more intellectual, and have a strong interest in learning. I think sem should be limited to those groups, and the classes should be more text-based and intellectual (works better for that crowd, anyway) than full of propaganda.

- It may make sense for girls to wait a year or two after sem before dating, simply to get a bearing of what they really want in life and in a zivug. But with communal pressures as they are, this will never happen.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Top Ten Simon & Garfunkel Songs

CORRECTION: Paul first heard the lyrics to "April Come She Will" from a girl he met in England, who told him it was an English nursery rhyme. "Richard Cory" was based on a poem that Paul read in junior high.

- Been busy like crazy lately, so all I've had time for is a quick top-ten list. I should be back in the saddle in a few days, however.

Every yeshiva guy's first foray into secular music leads to Simon and Garfunkel, a couple of Jewish guys from Queens. Their stuff does have a Jewish sound, with the harmonies, the acoustic guitars, and all. Some of their stuff is great, other stuff is super-cheesy.

I also happen to think Paul's solo stuff is much, much better than his stuff with Artie. I have a draft titled "Why I hate Art Garfunkel" in the works. For now, let's just say that if Simon and Garfunkel never break up, we never get Graceland.

Anyway, here's the list:

10 I Am A Rock - it's my Dad's favorite; I had to put it up here. (Simon did this one in his '00 tour; I thought that version was better than the original.)
9 At the Zoo - Paul gets Orwellian.
8 Leaves That Are Green - Catchy tune, depressing lyrics - that's very Jewish.
7 The Sound of Silence - this is #1 on most people's list; I'm a little sick of it, and the thought of the Variations version gets me nauseous. Still a haunting classic, though.
6 A Hazy Shade of Winter - the Bangles did a cover of this in a lame comeback attempt. Their butchering of this song pissed me off. I love the opening riff to this one.
5 April Come She Will - one of my favorites from the Central Park concert.
4 Scarborough Fair - classic. My uncle claims that Paul ripped this tune from a "Dror Yikra" he heard when he was young. It's probably a Jewish rumor.
3 Mrs. Robinson - they did not sing this one in the yeshivas. In one place I attended, there was an old joke about how someone asked the mashgiach if you could sing a song with Jesus' name in it. To which the mashgiach replied, "you mean Mrs. Robinson?" Sorry for ruining your day with that one.
2 Cecilia - they sure as hell didn't sing this one in yeshiva. Very catchy tune; great stuff.
1 The Boxer - this classic never gets old. The tune and the lyrics are just incredible. I once read that Paul was originally ticked off about the "lai lai lai" part, because he had no words for it. But in the end, the song would simply not be the same without it.

Overrated stuff:
Homeward Bound - nothing special; another song mutilated by Veroba and Co.
Feelin' Groovy - cheesy. I hate this song. I cringed when they played this in the '03 reunion tour. The thought of a couple of 60-year-olds singing this is just plain creepy.
Bridge Over Troubled Water - maybe I'm just sick of it.
America - I know everyone gets excited about the New Jersey Turnpike reference, but I think this song is nice but no effect.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Thoughts on Originality

Ecclesiastes said, "there is nothing new under the sun." So, does it even pay to try to be original? After all, it's all been done before.

When it comes down to it, though, we all want something original. Originality is a key to success, and it comes up in nearly every area of life.

For example, when I was in yeshiva, I never liked the rabbeim whose whole shiur consisted of simply spitting back rishonim and acharonim. If I wanted to just hear R' Shmuel Rozovsky's approach to the sugya, I would look it up. I wanted something original, something I wouldn't find in any sefer.

Likewise, my dad hates when Shwekey puts out an album of all covers of old songs. He wants to hear new stuff, not the same songs that Carlebach sang 30 years ago. (Then again, 9 times out of 10, the new Jewish music is horrendous; or, it's just a rip-off of the old stuff!). And similarly, nobody wants to hear a stand-up comic repeat the same cliched, predictable lines, and nobody wants to see a blogger beat the same issue to death, or simply parrot an editorial from the Times.

And almost every person wants to be original in some way or another. People in business or investing have to "think outside the box" to succeed. And even when you're telling a joke, you'd rather say your own punchline then just repeat something you saw on Seinfeld.

- The problem is, as the years go by, it gets harder and harder to be original. There's only a finite number of good ideas out there, and every day, more of them are getting used up. There were many more novel ideas out there in 1996 than there are now.

- Also, originality can often be a relative term. Something that's original to us may be an old story in Japan, and vice versa. But if we don't know that such an idea exists, we'll still be impressed with their originality. These days, however, with blogs, Youtube, etc., the world is much smaller. So someone's comedy routine in Australia will make it to our country much, much faster than it would have 10 years ago. And the amount of information on the internet is astounding. How many blog pieces by anyone deal with issues that were never, ever discussed elsewhere?

- These days, it seems like we often have to settle for being unoriginal, but throwing in a twist of originality. Going back to the above examples, a rebbi might use someone else's approach to a sugya, but throw in his own kasha at the end, so at least you got something novel from the shiur, and it wasn't just a discussion you could've found on the seforim shelves. And in business, many successful models aren't original from scratch; they may be based on other models, but the new versions may be more efficient and less flawed than the old one. And those nuances that make that model successful are the elements of originality there.

And then there are the pareve people who say everything is original, because everyone has their own style of doing things. So if 30 people blog about the same topic, make the same arguments, and come to the same conclusion, all 30 pieces are original because each of those people has a unique writing style and manner of expressing themselves. Or with the music example, people can say, "that's Shwekey doing HIS version of a Carlebach song; it's a different voice, so it's original."

But that's just too much for me. In theory, it may be original, based on the above logic. But if I read it and don't get the satisfaction of something new, instead thinking "that's an old story," or "where have I seen this before?" then to me, it's just the same old song and dance. I don't care who's writing it this time.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The First Sign

Maybe it's because I need more important things to do with my time. Or maybe it's because I think about food too much. But I get very excited when a new kosher restaurant/fast-food joint/grocery opens up in my neighborhood. I know I've gotta try their schawarma, their burgers, their sushi, whatever they've got.

And then the inevitable occurs. The prices slowly creep up, and the level of service slowly creeps down. Your steak sub has more lettuce than steak in it. They keep misplacing your order. Their food tastes like oil.

After far too many of these experiences, I've come to realize the precise point when a business is going south: it's when they start using generic bags.

Think about it. When was the last time you went to Starbucks and got an "I Love NY" bag? Or went to the Gap and, instead of getting their signature navy blue bag, got a quasi-transparent bag that says "Thank You" fifteen times on it?

I was a big Circa fan for a while. I loved the make-your-own pasta bar, and their sushi was good, too. Then one day I got some stuff to go, and guess what? No more "Circa" bags. They gave me a plain white shopping bag. (Or it might've been one of those "Thank You" jobs.) Not long after that, they stopped the make-your-own-pasta thing, and now, they're no longer.

For a while, I was getting takeout from Dougie's, too. And the bags with that classic logo was replaced by a plain opaque plastic bag. And now, they're gone too.

My favorite was when a heimishe grocery near me stopped using their own bags, and got a whole run of bags from some church in South Carolina. There were rabbis in my neighborhood walking around with challahs in bags with psukim from John and Romans. That place: gonzo.

I don't know how many of you notice the bag you get your food in, but maybe you should pay attention next time. It could be the sign of something coming.

10 Biggest Sellouts in Pop Music

I hate when an artist sells out. They've got their niche, their cult following, they're talented, and they're being ambitious. Then they decide to sell records. Sometimes selling out works, other times it backfires, and they you have some guys who sell out from day one (like Foreigner and 3 Doors Down), but here's a list of 10 artists that I wish would go back to what they do best.

10) U2
Sellout song: City of Blinding Lights
They reinvented themselves in 1991 with the incredible "Achtung Baby," and did a great job doing dance on "Pop." The album did great in Europe, but was a bust here. So they've tried putting out two more "Joshua Tree"-type albums. And when they made me pay to start going to their website, that was the last straw. After their last album got panned, I wonder if they guys will be as full of themselves.

9) Hall and Oates
Sellout song: Out of Touch
Listen to their early stuff, and they were doing some interesting things. They were on their way to becoming a white R&B duo. Instead, they put out some of the cheesiest videos of the 80's.

8) Rod Stewart
Sellout song: What a Wonderful World
This loser hasn't written a new song since Bush 41 was in office. Why do people buy his crappy cover albums? His voice isn't even that powerful anymore. I'm all for a mass boycott.

7) Jefferson Airplane/Starship
Sellout song: Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now
I never thought they were that good as a psychedelic 60's band, but they were undoubtedly lame as an over-the-hill 80's group.

6) Led Zeppelin
Sellout songs: All My Love, Fool in the Rain
Years ago, I bought Led's final album "In Through the Out Door" at a used record store. I sold it not long after. When you've got Jimmy Page, why do you need to use synths? And why does my local classic rock station play the garbage from this album?

5) Genesis
Sellout song: Invisible Touch
They were totally different under Peter Gabriel (prog-rock in the vein of Yes and Rush), and in the early Collins years, they put out great stuff like "Abacab." But then they became an adult-contemporary group. At least Collins saved his cheesiest stuff (Groovy Kind of Love, etc.) for his solo junkets, rather than embarrassing the rest of the band.

4) Eric Clapton
Sellout songs: The Way That You Use It, Change the World
The guy's been putting out so much dreck that it's hard to imagine that he was once a rock legend. Watching this guy now is about as painful as it was to watch Jordan on the Wizards. At least once in a while Clapton puts out a solid album like "From The Cradle" to remind us he's still not totally shot.

3) Crosby, Stills, and Nash
Sellout song: anything from '88 to '94
These guys went from legends to garbage. You've never heard their sellout songs; they were that bad. They should've done what fellow harmonziers Simon and Garfunkel did and just stayed apart.

2) Aerosmith
Sellout song: I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing
Let's be frank: they were better before they got sober. Listen to "Rocks." They don't belong on Lite-FM.

1) Chicago
Sellout song: Hard to Say I'm Sorry
These guys were as unique as they come: a rock band with horns? And they were so good. Sometime in the 80's, they decided to become as stale and cliche as it gets. And their niche was having a lead singer with a voice like a woman's. Depressing.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Picky Guys

Occasionally, you'll come across a guy who's a little older (say, over 27) and not married. Why not? Because he wants a girl who's not just "very pretty." She has to be beautiful. On a scale of 1 to 10, she's gotta be a 20.

And some picky guys take pride in having such an attitude. "I can't settle for anything less." "Any girl who marries me HAS to be beautiful." It's as if the guy is saying, anyone who isn't a supermodel doesn't deserve to marry me. I can only go for the kind of girls that celebrities and athletes end up with. Then you have those who say, "I'm simply not attracted to any girl who isn't stunning." As if it's not their fault, it's just the way they are by nature. Please.

I think these guys are full of it. And one of three things is going on there.

1) The guy is insecure. VERY insecure. He's worried about what everyone's gonna think at his l'chaim, or what people will say if the pictures get posted on Only Simchas. So the idiot doesn't even like the girl because HE finds her attractive; rather, it's all about what OTHER people find attractive. How pathetic. And it's not even the girl's personality that the guy is worried about, or her middos, or their chemistry. It's all about what everyone else will say.

For a more extensive discussion, I highly recommend Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin's discussion of the issue. His article is a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of the current shidduch crisis.

2) It could be that such a guy is a homo. I think anyone with some taavas noshim will go for most girls. Now, I don't expect most guys to be as wild as Bill Clinton and go for the likes of Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky. But when it comes down to it, the majority of girls out there are attractive. And a little makeup and the right clothes can help most people. Plus, if you enjoy someone's company, the looks just keep growing on you. So if someone can go out with a girl who's a "7" (on a scale of 1-10), enjoy their company, and still not feel attracted, then something else must be the issue.

And interestingly, homosexuality might stem from the same causes as the insecurities discussed in paragraph 1. See Dr. Sorotzkin's site for more.

3) A lot of it might just be immaturity, especially when you're dealing with a 21-year old guy on the market. Many guys who have just started dating often don't know what they're looking for in a girl, what they want out of life, what their goals are, etc. But when it comes to guys in this category, they often come to their senses within a few years. Like most people, they grow up. They realize that looks are not what it's all about, and they start focusing on more important factors in a potential mate. But when you're talking about a guy who's 29 and still is super-picky, they're probably in the first two categories above. Then again, some people never grow up.