Isaac Kaplan

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

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Baseball: Bring on '08! Predictions

It's amazing how the World Series seems to end later every year, and yet the offseason seems to take longer and longer. For a short stretch in January, I almost lost interest in baseball - I hadn't been so out of it since '95. But then Santana and Bedard got traded, and it all got exciting again. And once I had the game on the other morning, the wait was over.

Anyway, it's prediction time.

-- The Orioles will hit the record books again, a year after losing 30-3 to Texas. I predict 125 losses for them this year. They lost Bedard and Tejada, and Roberts has had one foot out the door for months. They've got 19 games apiece against two of the best teams in the game, Boston and the Yanks, another 19 against a dangerous Rays team, and 19 against Halladay, Burnett, and the Jays. True, they've got Markakis and Adam Jones, but they've also got Steve Trachsel. It's gonna get real ugly in Camden, as Peter Angelos battles the Dolans for worst owner in sports.

-- World Series - Detroit vs. Arizona. I know Detroit's got bullpen issues, but if Zumaya and Rodney are healthy down the stretch, they'll be fine. I think Willis will improve, in spite of the NL-AL switch. 

I know the Mets fans won't appreciate the Arizona pick, and neither will the Sabermetricians, because of last year's negative run differential. But I credit Melvin's use of the bullpen and general strategy more than anything else. Plus: these guys made it to the NLCS last year, before running into the red-hot Rockies. And they've added Haren, giving them a great 1-2 punch for a short series. Also, they've got a bunch of players who are young and whose best is yet to come, like Chris Young and Justin Upton. Compare that to the Mets, where you don't know what you'll get from guys like Delgado and El Duque. 

I like Detroit in 6.

-- I'm picking Boston to win the AL East and Cleveland to take home the Wild Card. That means the Yankees miss the playoffs, and that means Cashman gets fired and Hank goes all-out to get Sabathia and Texieria. Not good for the game.

-- Rockies of '08? -- the Reds. I think they'll finish 2nd in the NL Central (Cubs in first), but they'll break .500 for the first time in a while, and in a couple of years, might be primed to bring the Series to Cincy for the first time since the Nasty Boys.

-- I like the Braves as the Wild Card. I think Hampton's gonna be Comeback Player of the Year. Francoeur and McCann will keep improving, and a full year of Teixeria will be huge.

-- Awards: AL MVP - Miguel Cabrera, AL Cy Young - Erik Bedard, AL ROY - Evan Longoria
NL MVP - Chase Utley, NL Cy Young - Johan Santana, NL ROY - Joey Votto

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Mechanech For All Students

The passing of R’ Eli Teitelbaum ZT”L saddens me. I didn’t know the man personally, save for an unforgettable summer in Israel that I and so many hundreds of others experienced.

Like most people, I really got to know him from the Country Yossi articles and the ads for his various projects, not to mention the “How to play Casio and Yamaha keyboards” cassettes that have gathered dust in my basement. What really struck me about the man and his projects was how, as a mechanech, he attempted to reach out to all kinds of students with all sorts of talents.

We live in a time where, increasingly, the chareidi chinuch system is catering to the elite child and leaving the “mediocre” kids behind. If you can’t handle a summer in a learning camp, if you can’t handle 5 years of beis medrash (at least!) following high school, and if you’re even thinking about that four-letter word called “work,” you’ve become second-rate.

The litvishe system in Europe was like that, catering to the elite, and it was a resounding success – 85% of the Jews there assimilated.

One of the lessons of Parshas Vayechi is that each shevet has something different to offer, and that diversity is appreciated by Yaakov. True, there was a Yissachar who learned all day, but every other shevet was blessed for their unique tafkid and talents.

And Rabbi Teitelbaum had something to offer for all students, with all sorts of talents. A kid has a talent for music? Nothing wrong with joining a choir, or learning to play the keyboard. No hand-wringing about “bitul Torah.” A kid needs a break? Nothing wrong with a weekend in Canada, or a summer in Israel, or even attending a concert. He even started a middos contest, iterating the importance of a largely neglected area of Yiddishkeit.

Perhaps his last piece in CY was his most important ever, as he was standing athwart Chareidi Judaism, yelling “stop!” (my apologies to the late Bill Buckley for that one).

Finally, his thinking outside the box led to the Torah Communications Network and Dial-a-Daf, both tremendous services to the community.

If we had more like him in our community, we’d be in much better shape. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Why Chareidi Schools Scare Me

To me, it's about one thing: it may be very hard to get a kid to love learning Torah and Judaism, but it's very easy to get that kid to hate Judaism and Torah, and lose him forever.

Let's face it. You're dealing with a kid, someone exposed to all that Western culture and the mass media have to offer. The average 15-year old will want to have fun. And guess what? That's healthy. A kid that age who gets more excited over the Mets than a blatt gemara is probably more psychologically healthy than a kid that age with a 20-minute shmonah esrei. That's called OCD.

I had a rebbi in elementary school that, in retrospect, is one of the biggest tzaddikim I've ever met. I still remember the way his eyes lit up when someone asked a good kasha. But most of us didn't appreciate him; we were too busy passing notes or playing games under the desk. Most of the kids liked the other rebbi better, because he brought donuts to class. That's normal.

As the average kid matures and seeks meaning in life, chances are he will gravitate towards religion, especially if he grows up in a home where Yiddishkeit and Torah. And the "flipping out" phenomon has shown that even when the parents don't give a darn about Judaism, the kids will often seek the light of Torah on their own. That often comes with maturity; a 14 year old generally doesn't care about the meaning of life; but at 18? Much greater chance of that.

However, if a kid went to a school and developed strong negative associations towards Torah and yiddishkeit, good luck getting him motivated to come closer to G-d. It's extremely difficult to undo some of the stupid, stupid things that some rabbeim do and say.

Shalom Auslander's "Foreskin's Lament"contains some incidents that are simply horrifying. Here's a sampler: one kid's father passed away. The day after, the principal came in and told the kids, "a father is responsible for a son's sins until he turns bar mitzvah, so watch yourselves." Sickening.

And then there was that nutcase who was quoted in the Yated a few months ago, who said "if only everybody threw out their iPods, then Moshiach would come." What a moron. Or the morah who tells her class, "if anyone in here watches TV, get out; I don't want to see your face." Get help, lady.

How about the clowns that throw a kid out of class when they don't know the answer to a tough hashkafa question? And they call the kid an apikores and kofer, to boot.

Let's not forget the sickos who beat up kids in front of the entire class. That's a great motivator.

So a kid comes out of some of these schools thinking that G-d hates them, and that if they slip and say lashon hora once by accident, too bad - they're getting a first class ticket straight to hell. What happens? Either they become perfectionists and develop OCD, or they become apathetic, maybe even angry. And there's almost no chance of getting them interested in learning again, even as they mature. They become, to quote the Jewish Observer, "adults at risk."

The moderate/MO schools are far from perfect, and have problems of their own. But I highly doubt that anyone comes out of there hating Torah Judaism.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Next Victims of The Shidduch Crisis?

When you picture the victims of the shidduch crisis, a few images probably come to mind. Maybe you think of a 24-year old pouring out her heart in a letter to the Yated. Or maybe the single girl sitting at the chupa of her best friend, silently davening that she should be next.

But I think the girl under the chupa, the one in the wedding gown, may also be a victim of the crisis. Here's why.

The shidduch crisis has had a few ripple effects:

1) The pressure - because there's a crisis out there, many singles are feeling the heat, like they need to get married, quick! This obviously can lead to making a rushed, haphazard decision in choosing a spouse. An article in the Five Town Jewish Times deals with this point.

In addition, think about all the Jews that fall for image-itis. For them, marriage is all about image - the spouse, the mechutanaim, and the various elements of the wedding are all chosen based on what the neighbors will think. And many of the neurotic mothers (who are also a large cause of the shidduch crisis, but that's for another time) are freaking out and pressuring the kids to marry, because if the girl isn't married by 20, what will the neighbors think? It's reached the point where if a girl is going out and has an older sister who's still single, it's almost as big a black mark as having a sibling who's off the derech ("Why isn't the sister married? Is there something wrong with her?")

2) The glorification of marriage as being a "magic pill," something that cure all problems, not just the lack of a spouse. Daas Hedyot and Bad for Shidduchim have both done a great job discussing the prevalence of this attitude.

They don't make the connection between that attitude and the shidduch crisis, but I think it's definitely there. Many singles have developed such pressure and desire to get married that they get delusional. They then start thinking, "if only I was married." And it becomes a mantra to address every problem in their lives. After all, we've reached the point where some people are so desperate to get married, you'd think they just want to be married for the sake of being married, no matter that the guy may the biggest putz in Brooklyn. Why should they worry? After all, marriage is the only thing separating them from happiness! And once they're married, all their problems will be solved! And it's quite obvious that such an attitude can lead to big, big issues in the long run.

- What's the solution to these dangers? I don't think denying that there's a crisis would be helpful. The awareness of the shidduch crisis has led to some soul-searching and imprtant suggestions to address the crisis, and we need as much of that as we can get. And if people will get freaked out by the use of the word "crisis," too bad. Let them use their seichel in making the most important decision of their lives. The benefits of awareness of the crisis outweigh the costs.

Let's just hope enough people do, in fact, use their seichel, and prevent the "shidduch crisis" from G-d forbid turning into a "marriage crisis."

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Top 5 Avraham Fried Albums

To me, Fried is the best in the Jewish music business. By a mile. It's like listening to Vin Scully broadcast a ballgame, and then trying to hear someone else do it - Sterling, Cohen, Rose - whomever - some do a decent job, some are awful, but even the very good ones don't match up.

What does Fried have going for him? Four things. One, the voice - one of the best, probably the best in the JM business. He's one of those guys with whose got the powerful voice for the fast songs, and the soft voice for the slow songs (think "Yisimcha"). Two, he's got a great composer in Yossi Green, easily the most creative JM composer out there (I'm not a big Rottenberg fan, and I like Brazil, but the creativity isn't there as much.) Three, the guy puts out albums for the sake of putting out albums, not to get his name out there so he can sing at weddings. As a result, you get the feeling that effort was put into most of his songs, at least. Most importantly, Fried's not a performer - the guy sings from the heart. He's out there to inspire. I don't listen to Jewish music for entertainment, only inspiration. If I want entertaining music, there's a lot of better stuff out there than Eli Gerstner or Lipa or whomever. And let's just say it isn't stuff that's sold in Galpaz.

So my top 5 Fried albums are as follows:

5) We Are Ready! (1988) - Okay, "Avrohom Yogel" definitely sounds dated, but it was HUGE in its day. The title track is a cringe-worthy English song, easily the worst on the album. But Fried redeems himself with a criminally underrated "Yedid Nefesh," only recently made famous by Shwekey on one of those albums where they turn a bunch of old songs into medleys. "Tania" is one of Fried's all-time best tracks. There are a few decent fast songs on here too, the most noteworthy being "Eliyahu HaNavi." "Shavas Aniyim" is also worth a listen.

4) Aderaba (1991) - Side A on here is tremendous - "Kol Yisroel" is my favorite Fried opener, "Aderaba" is my favorite Fried song in terms of lyrics, and Nisht Gedayget and HaShomayim are very very good. Plus there's "Kaitzad," typical Laufer song, but a good one. Side B has a good opener in "Hinei," then another classic Yossi Green epic in "Ki Hamitzvoh." Fried's vocals soar on that one. The rest of the album doesn't feature anything noteworthy.

3) No Jew Will Be Left Behind (1981) - I love early Fried for his voice - it sounds much sweeter on the earlier albums. The album opens with "Kel Hahodos," a fast opener later made famous by Uncle Moishy. This is the only Fried album with two English songs, and both are surprisingly very good. "Kanei" is a standout track, and Fried's vocals on here are simply incredible. The "Ani Maamin" of the Kedoshim is one of the most powerful Jewish songs ever recorded. Only problem with the album: too short. If you have just 8 songs, you've gotta leave the filler out.

2) Forever One (1983) - This is another great early Fried album. "Invei Hagefen" has withstood the test of time, "Mishoch" and "Tzomo" are like typical Green songs, with the slow semi-chazzonish beginning leading up to a fast ending. "Forever One" doesn't make you cringe - impressive for a Jewish English song. Side B has a couple of excellent slow songs: the Yiddish "Tateynu" and an inspiring and criminally underrated "Acheinu," better than the cold Lev Vnefesh version. "Me'eyn" is my favorite closer for a Fried album; it's one of his catchiest songs.

1) Brocha V'Hatzlocha (1995) - One of my biggest problems with Jewish music is that far too often, you spend 15 bucks on an album with one or two hits and 10 songs that were composed when someone was in the john or waiting on line at the pizza shop.

Aside from an awful English song, every tune on here is tremendous; the key here is the fast songs. On some Fried albums, the fast songs sound kinda bland; they're nice, but they don't stand out. Here, all of the fast songs have a distinct sound, and give this album a consistency that is somewhat lacking on the other albums. "K'Sheim" "Sisu" and "Bracha V'Hatzlocha" are all solid, and "Odom Doaig" is another home run by Green. And the slow songs are Green classics - Chabibi and R'tzei are the typical slow/chazzanish to fast/joyful epics, executed flawlessly. "Yisimicha" is beautiful. "Zechor" didn't hit it too big, but it's a great song too. This is my second-favorite Jewish album of all time (Regesh III is #1, if you must know).

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Purim Lesson for 2008

Was going to do a more conventional blog tonight, but I'm a little shaken from the events of today, and thought a dvar torah would be appropriate (although not directly related to today's events), especially with Rosh Chodesh Adar II on the horizon.

The first perek of the megilla discusses the seudos that Ahasuerus made for his kingdom. The megilla doesn't just go through the significant parts of the seudah, such as the incident with Vashti and Memuchan (which at first glance, is the most critical part of the first chapter). Rather, the megilla goes on and on detailing the grandeur of the seudah. Similarly, in the second chapter, when it comes time to pick a new queen, the megilla spares no detail in telling us the various trivialities of the process - the cosmetics, the eunuchs, etc. Why?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ZT"L explains it beautifully in "Days of Deliverance:"

"When the curtain rises on the first act, what do we see on the stage? A feasting, pleasure-loving, and pleasure-pursuing society. The Book of Esther did not spare words in portraying vividly, with refined artistry and sarcasm, the repugnant addiction of the king, princes, courtiers, ans servants to lascivious pleasures, to the incessant pursuit of an ever-fugitive satisfaction. We read of the habits of an orgiastic society that was tired and exhausted because of satiety, yet anticipated another satiety to be tried for the sheer novelty of it.

- snip-

The Scripture, which is tight-lipped about the lives of Moses, Abraham, and Isaac, becomes suddenly so loquacious in narrating the story of the king's wives, banquets, and the degenerate life at court. Why? Because only in a non-rational environment could irrational man-Satan arise. Only people who were pursuing pleasure - for whom values had no fixity, norms no ultimate validity - could tolerate man-Satan, irrational and destructive and cruel; only people addicted to the beautiful and pleasant could have stood by and watched the smoke rising from the chimneys of the crematoria climbing to heaven."


A society of Shaashgaz and Hegai must produce a Haman.
I would also like to think that maybe this is another way to understand the gemara of "mipnei she'neheneh miseudasso shel oso rasha" - because we were obsessed with the seudah and the feasting, we became so oblivious to the developments around us that nearly led to our destruction.

The first thing that came to mind after reading the Rav's pshat was something Michael Savage has often said: this country is too obsessed with celebrities, movies, sports, and other pleasures to care about the horrible forces (both from out and within our country) that threaten our very existence.

And Pinny Lipschutz, a man I almost always disagree with, made the same point a few weeks ago. He discussed how many of us read about the horrors of Sderot. Perhaps we let it affect us for a second, if at all, but often we just forget about and turn to discuss Pesach in Cancun.

-- The megilla is teaching us a very important lesson. The first step to progress, to doing our hishtadlus in making things better - is simply to give a darn. Take account of what we care about in life, what's important to us, and see what's up on the list. If we're too blinded by money, movies, clothes, celebrity gossip, and sports, we can't make a difference. We'll be too obsessed with pleasure to see things collapse around us. (And I'm not one of those hand-wringers who's anti any pleasure not involving a daf gemara. I'm a big fan of pleasure - in moderation, and without losing sight of real life.)

You look around the frum community, and it's fraught with problems - kids-at-risk, the shidduch crisis, kol koreis without due process, etc. One big reason why many problems still fester - too many people don't care. They're too worried about making the next buck, the next vacation, the next fancy car to even stop and notice the way things are going wrong.

And that's why this is one of the most important lessons of the megilla, one that remains painfully true a few thousand years later.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Bringing Meah Shearim to Brooklyn

This piece from the Jewish Star brings to light one of my greatest fears: the attempt by the kanoim to turn Brooklyn into Meah Shearim, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak, pick your chareidi paradise.

I have a hard time accepting the psakim of Rav Elyashiv and Rav Shteinman upon myself. Don't get me wrong - I have the utmost respect for them and their Torah knowledge.

But to me, they're like Rav Ovadiah Yosef - another individual whose knowledge and greatness I respect. The man is a tremendous talmid chacham - see it for yourself by looking at a page of any of his seforim. But I don't follow his psakim. Why not? They're not meant for me or my community - I'm not sefardi, so I don't follow that approach.

The chareidim in Eretz Yisrael live in a different world, a world where "learning a trade is poison," where shaving is an issur d'oraysah, chalav stam is treif, and the list of differences goes on and on. According to many of the statements and psakim of the gedolim there, many of us here are getting a first-class ticket to hell. So while I respect the rabbonim there, I don't believe that they're "our" poskim, the same way that R' Ovadiah is not a posek for the J-Dubs.

I've always believed that there are many factors that go into halacha, including social factors, and there certainly is proof of that all over (shaas hadchak, mipnei darchei shalom, and others). And I think it's reasonable for any posek who's paskining for a tzibur to have some knowledge of that tzibur, their upbringing, their struggles, their beliefs, etc. And maybe some psakim can be made without such knowledge (for example, the law of forgetting a part of davening), but in many instances, the people and the community are a big factor in psak.

And that's what's troubling about the process here - are the gedolim in eretz yisrael fully aware of the issues facing our communities, such as the kids-at-risk and the much larger exposure to the media that golus brings? Are they fully aware of the way many of us live our lives here, struggling for hours to earn a living in a secular world?

-- The impression I've always had is that since Rav Moshe passed away, there hasn't been a pre-eminent American posek hador. It's a big, big problem. And the problem is manifesting itself in this manner - the kanoim are trying to turn New York into Bnei Brak, and it's just plain wrong. That's one reason the whole wig fiasco outside Chaim Berlin rubbed me the wrong way. What's next, asking the city council for separate seating on the B9? Tznius police on Avenue J? Protests outside of Touro College?

Don't get me wrong - the chareidi enclaves in Israel have a lot going for them that we're lacking, but they also have a lot of problems. And all the kanoim will end up doing is importing those problems. Not in my backyard!

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