Friday, January 23, 2015

Is This the Real Amy Farrah?

Mayim Bialik (Kveller)
One of the sitcoms I watch regularly is The Big Bang Theory. It is a funny show and I love comedy. But that isn't the only reason. I am a big fan of the award winning actress who plays actor Jim Parson's girlfriend on the show, Mayim Bialik.

Mayim is a Baal Teshuva. Anytime a celebrity becomes observant, that is big news. It makes them an example to her fans and followers, many of whom are Jewish. And that makes me a fan too. Not only of her talent but of her commitment to her beliefs in a field that often makes that very difficult. Big time.

There was an article published on her blog, Kveller,  (which I commented upon) that spoke about the horrors a non observant mother has gone through with her newly observant daughter. Mayim has taken the time and trouble to write a response to this article. It is very revealing about her commitment to observant Judaism. It follows:

Karin Brooke’s post on Kveller about losing her daughter to religious fundamentalism struck a chord with me for a few reasons.

First, I am technically a baal teshuvah–a person who took on Jewish observance later in life. I struggled a lot in college regarding how to introduce my parents (especially my mother, who was raised Orthodox but chose not to be as an adult) to my new found faith and observance. It was hard. It pains me that Karin’s daughter and she did not find ways to connect positively about her daughter’s transformation. (My own parents eventually, on their own, started lighting Shabbat candles regularly and keeping Passover with more care, which has made it really lovely for my sons to see all of us observing similarly.)

Second, the writer says things about Orthodoxy that might be interpreted as what “all” Orthodox sects practice or believe in. Some of the things she mentions are very far outside of the mainstream Orthodox box, and I think most Orthodox people would find some of the practices she describes her daughter taking on as fringe, and not consistent with standard Orthodox practice.

The post got me thinking about the misperceptions I grew up with about Orthodoxy, many of which were because my mother was raised by Eastern European immigrants and a lot of their “old world” ways she assumed were synonymous with “Orthodoxy” but they weren’t.

For example, my grandparents were very superstitious, but that’s not Orthodoxy, per se. My grandparents also had some very, shall we say, strong feelings about how girls and women should and shouldn’t behave, and deviation from that was not welcomed. Orthodoxy by definition doesn’t have those beliefs; they did. But my mom, since childhood, had assimilated these things into her perception of Orthodoxy in general, which made my taking on observance–as well as her sister’s decision to become even more religious when she got married–difficult for her.

Here are a few things I eventually discovered were quirks rather than norms of Orthodoxy, or simply urban legend. I thank Allison Josephs (my chevrusa [study partner] who I met through Partners in Torah), known online as Jew In The City for contributing to the truths behind these things.

Disclaimer: The answers Allison provides are simply snapshots into very complicated issues in Judaism. Her answers are by no means definitive, but she and I both work hard to try and separate misperceptions from truth about Orthodoxy, and we hope this piques your interest and challenges some of your misperceptions! 

MYTH: Orthodox women have to shave their heads at their weddings.

TRUTH: Jewish law requires a married woman to cover her hair, not shave it. (In fact, the Torah, when discussing the “captive woman” in the book of Devarim seems to indicate that head-shaving makes a woman less attractive.) Nevertheless, there is a percentage of Hasidic (non-Lubavitch) woman who do so.

MYTH: Orthodox women can’t be artists or draw pictures of any kind.

TRUTH: I once heard (in the name of Rav Kook–an Orthodox Israeli rabbi) that God left the world “unfinished” when creating it, and that when we make art, we are “partnering” with him in the creation of the world. Women are not excluded! There is a Torah prohibition against making a graven image. Everyone says you can’t make a statue to use for a god. There are some who say you can’t make a statue that looks like a person. There is a very minority opinion which says you can’t draw or paint a picture with a face. There are many Orthodox female artists–even some who have gained acclaim like Elke Reva Sudin.  There are also schools and associations which support religious Jewish women who want to make art.

MYTH: Orthodox women aren’t respected by their husbands and are virtual slaves.

TRUTH: The Talmud says that a man is supposed to love his wife as much as himself and honor her more. In the Jewish marriage contract (which is thousands of years old) a man is required to provide his wife with clothing, food, and sexual satisfaction–a unique document historically; no other ancient contract guaranteed such rights for women. There are, of course, lousy men in the Orthodox community, just as there are lousy men in every community. There are unhappy women in the Orthodox community as there are in all communities, but most women I’ve come in contact with (in over 15 years in the Orthodox world) seem to be quite happy. There are also a huge number of Orthodox women who work and the variety of fields they are in is ever-expanding. In fact, there are even some examples in the Hasidic world where men work for their wives!

MYTH: Orthodoxy sees women as lesser in general.

TRUTH: According to the Torah, man and woman were created as one being to show us that men and women are two halves of one whole and that a husband and wife are different (in a yin yang sort of way) and are meant to complete one another. While it’s true that in Orthodoxy women are not obligated to time-bound commandments (meaning those designated as being performed at dawn or dusk, for example), we are told that women have merit which men do not have. The Talmud says that the Jews of Egypt were redeemed because of the righteous women and that the ultimate redemption will come about due to the righteous women. There are areas of Jewish law which seem to be skewed in men’s favor–such as Jewish divorce–but then there are Orthodox Jewish rabbis who have made innovations in Jewish law in order to protect women from such imbalances.

MYTH: You can’t wear any nice clothes when you’re Orthodox because it might be perceived as too 

TRUTH: Basic Jewish law requires women to cover their upper arms, upper legs, and chest (men have their own requirements in modesty to save their eyes only for their wives’ bodies and to dress modestly as well). Different communities have different ideas about how stylish clothes can or can’t be, but you’ll find (as in all communities) women who are more stylish and women who are less stylish. Interesting colors, textures, accessories, and shoes are allowed vis a vis basic law and are implemented by women like these.

MYTH: You can’t be a dancer if you’re Orthodox. Orthodox people don’t let their kids even start dance classes because they will just have to give it up when they hit puberty.

TRUTH: According to Jewish law, for modesty reasons, a woman can’t dance in front of a man who is not her husband (or close blood relative). But there are all female dance troupes which only perform in front of women. There are all women’s zumba and dance classes and many Orthodox Jewish girls go to dance class while they are young and the issue of modesty is not relevant. As with all of these topics, different communities do different things but many things are allowed in terms of basic law or can be done within an all female settling.

Allison and I hope that we have expanded some misperceptions while simultaneously showing how multi-faceted the jewel of observance can be. It’s not always simple to figure out where Orthodoxy and modernity meet, but things are not like they used to be. The world of Orthodoxy is broad and colorful and there is a lot of beauty in it.

Partners in Torah is a free organization that pairs you with a study partner for whatever you are curious about in Judaism. Check it out if you want to learn more!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Great Humanitarian - Mark Wahlberg

Mark Whalberg in the just released movie The Gambler
The following letter written to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick was written by Yanky Ostreicher on behalf of actor, Mark Wahlberg. It was first published in the New York Observer and republished in Matzav. It follows in it's entirety.
Dear Governor Deval Patrick:
I respectfully write to you today in support of Mr. Mark Wahlberg’s petition for pardon for a crime to which he pleaded guilty in 1988.
My relationship with Mark is unique, in that he can literally be credited with saving my life. Last year I was under house arrest in Bolivia following nearly two years of incarceration at Palmasola Prison, the only American among 3,500 of the world’s most dangerous criminals, despite never being formally charged with a crime. The details of my ordeal are complex, but for one to appreciate the magnitude of Mark’s actions, which eventually helped save my life, I must provide you with context, beginning with my time inside one of the world’s most horrendous prisons.
A routine business transaction inexplicably turned my world upside down. One day I was a successful businessman—a family man living the American dream—who was pursuing a venture in Bolivia. The next day I was plunged into an indescribable hell that will haunt me until the day I die. To most, hell is an abstract concept. To me, hell is an experience that has left me in a state of perpetual emotional struggle, fraught with isolation and discord. I must accept that, ultimately, I will never be able to sufficiently articulate my ordeal to another person. No frame of reference exists to communicate the Kafkaesque experience of being wrongfully incarcerated in a foreign country under such deplorable conditions.
During my nearly three years of captivity in Bolivia, many efforts were made on my behalf, including a petition to the White House, signed by over 35,000 citizens. Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey traveled to Bolivia to meet with government officials and upon return led multiple hearings in front of Congress to call attention to my situation. And hundreds of supporters attended a rally at New York’s Bolivian Mission in 2012. Sadly, all of these efforts proved futile against the deep-seated corruption within the Bolivian government and legal system, which virtually ensured that, despite my complete innocence, I would remain incarcerated for the rest of my life. My family and I lost hope that I would live to see another day of freedom. Nevertheless, the efforts on my behalf continued.
A young rabbi, Zvi Boyarsky of the Aleph Institute, began reaching out to anyone with influence who might be able to assist, and mentioned my plight to Mark Wahlberg. Mark felt instantly compelled to act on behalf of a complete stranger, his sole motivation being the desire to help an innocent American rotting in a Bolivian prison. Mark decided to make every effort to pursue my release. One of those efforts was a call to his friend, Sean Penn.

Mark considered Sean Penn’s relationship with various Venezuelan leaders—including then President Hugo Chavez—as potentially useful on a diplomatic level. He implored Sean to use his relationship as a tool toward opening a dialogue with the Bolivian authorities. Having thoroughly researched every facet of my imprisonment, Mark briefed Sean on the intricacies and persuaded him to take a dedicated interest in the matter. Like Mark, Sean was deeply affected by the insanity of my situation. Together, they agreed that inaction was simply not an option. My life was at stake, and regardless of the fact that I was a complete stranger, they could not stand by and allow a miscarriage of justice to perpetuate itself. Sean immediately initiated a dialogue with the Bolivian government.
Actor Sean Penn with Yanky while still in Bolivia and confined to house arrest
After Sean’s meeting with the President of Bolivia, I was released to a hospital weighing 107 pounds (down from 180) and subsequently confined to house arrest, still never having been charged with a crime. Over the course of the next year, while remaining under house arrest, 15 Bolivian officials—prosecutors for the Bolivian Minister of Government, an official in the Ministry of the Presidency, the Head of Internal Affairs, the judge who arbitrarily decreed my imprisonment, and many others—were arrested for their involvement in what is now understood to have been a widespread government extortion ring. As I write this, the criminals involved remain in prison.
Despite the fact that the corruption was being exposed, I remained under house arrest in Bolivia. Moreover, as additional Bolivian officials were implicated, threats against my life, as well as my attorney’s life, became increasingly frequent. I was in danger, and waiting for a release was not an option. For me to survive to see my family again, to return to US soil, I would have to escape. With the aid of experienced professionals, a plan for my escape was constructed and painstakingly executed, the understanding being that failure would almost certainly result in my death. I wish I could elaborate in greater detail, but the sensitive nature of the information prohibits me from doing so. I can simply state that I would soon find myself on a plane back to America, arriving in California on December 16th, 2013, a free man after nearly three years in hell.
This letter is written near the one-year anniversary of my return to the US, the day that I reclaimed my freedom. One year ago my parents, elderly Auschwitz survivors, put their arms around me and with tears streaming down their faces told me they were convinced they would never see me again. My children, my grandchildren, my entire family and my friends had all become resigned to the fact that I would die in Bolivia, never again to experience the gift of life together with them.

Recent photo of Yanky Ostreicher (Times Union)
I am alive today in large part because of Mark Wahlberg. That is not hyperbole. Had Mark Wahlberg not dedicated himself to pursuing my release, I would still be in that hell today, without a semblance of hope or a reason to live. I thank G-d for Mark’s efforts.
It is extraordinarily difficult for me to recount and articulate this most devastatingly harrowing experience. The mere thought of Bolivia, of a single moment in prison, is traumatizing. But this is a matter of urgency that supersedes my own struggles, because I am cognizant of the fact that without the aid of Mark Wahlberg, I would be living said trauma, rather than describing it in writing.
At the age of 16, Mark made a mistake that has haunted him each day thereafter. The assault of two young men was an unconscionable act that ought never be minimized or trivialized. However, Mark has never hid from the mistakes of his youth. He has confronted the issue time and time again, expressing not only his contrition, but an understanding that accepting and admitting one’s mistakes is necessary if one is to learn from them. How one responds to one’s mistakes is what defines us as individuals; it’s what demonstrates our character.
I know Mark Wahlberg through his efforts on my behalf. We do not socialize regularly, and I’m not a member of his entourage. I don’t attend dinner parties at his home or sit courtside with him at Lakers’ games. Rather, I know him through his actions, which are in fact the truest indicator of one’s character and one’s essence. Following my escape from Bolivia, Mark visited me, expressed his concern for my well-being and insisted that I not hesitate to contact him if I needed “anything.”
Mark has committed himself to myriad philanthropic and charitable causes over the years. He founded the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for inner city youth. He is actively involved with the Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women and Children, St. Francis Food Pantries and Shelters, The Wounded Warrior Project, The Red Cross, and several other organizations and causes. He strives to be a dedicated husband and father as well.
Mark went way beyond any imaginable limit to help save the life of a complete stranger, and did so with the purest of motives. That speaks to his innate compassion and the type of person he has become since the unfortunate episode of 1988.
The Hebrew word ‘L’chaim’ translates as “to life.” It’s used as a standard toast at Jewish gatherings and celebrations, “to life!” Mark Wahlberg saved my life. He is the reason that, after four years, I lit Hanukkah candles with my children and grandchildren last month. Together, we celebrated the true meaning of Hanukkah—freedom—which had special symbolism this year given my personal struggle. I will forever cherish those moments with my family, and I have Mark Wahlberg, among others, to thank for it.
I was given a second chance at life because of Mark Wahlberg. I respectfully ask that you consider granting Mark with an official pardon, a symbolic second chance. Mark Wahlberg will continue to be a man of integrity with or without a pardon. In my opinion, his countless positive acts over the past 25 years have eclipsed the mistakes of his youth. Especially in light of the fact that the victim, Johnny Trinh, publicly declared his unconditional forgiveness, I believe that a pardon is appropriate. A pardon will serve to officially recognize 25 years of positive growth, and given the spotlight under which Mark is forced to live his life, will underscore how change is possible, and provide a source of inspiration for others who strive to better themselves.
I thank you for your time.
Sincerely yours,

Jacob “Yanky” Ostreicher

Friday, January 2, 2015

'Today's Kids Face Greater Spiritual Challenges'

NCSY International Director, Rabbi Micah Greenland
My son in law has it right. Here is an interview with Rabbi Micah Greenland in Arutz Sheva.

Rabbi Micah Greenland, International Director for NCSY, explains to Arutz Sheva why Jewish identity - not observance - is now a key issue.

Orthodox Jewish leaders met in Tarrytown, New York last week for the OU International Convention, to discuss the future of the Jewish people in Israel and abroad. 

To understand what the Orthodox Jewish community leaders have planned for instilling Jewish values into the next generation of children and teens, Arutz Sheva spoke to National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) International Director, Rabbi Micah Greenland. 

"Spirituality in our teens really depends on exploring multiple avenues with them," Rabbi Greenland stated. "It starts with thinking outside the box:what are the avenues we can introduce our own teens to real spirituality?" 

Rabbi Greenland explained that, in his view, the foundation for a strong Jewish identity begins at home - and with the parents' example. 

"It starts with our own willingness to integrate spiritual experiences into our lives, that then we involve our kids in," he said. 

The point is not a matter of the technical details - how to keep Jewish law - but more a matter of instilling within the younger generations why it is they observe Torah law, so that their practice doesn't "fall by the wayside" after children leave home. 

To that end, he noted that today's generation faces greater challenges than before, as "we live in a socioeconomically very strong world" and "the more material wealth our kids are growing up with, the more difficult it is to focus on spiritual areas.