YU sumposium: Being Yeshivish in the Modern Orthodox world

Transcribed by Eli D. Clark

Rabbi Schwartz: Welcome everyone. Our topic tonight is “Being Gray in the Modern Orthodox World.” Each of our panelists will talk about how it feels to discover that you are really yeshivish after growing up Modern Orthodox. Before we begin, a few ground rules: We are not going to discuss Hashkofoh, Halochoh or the Heisman Trophy. For that we turn to Gedolei Yisroel. Please save your questions for later; if you wrap them in airtight plastic bags, they should stay fresh for days. Our first speaker is Chezkie.

Chezkie: Thank you, Rabbi Schwartz.

Growing up, I never realized I was gray. I went to day school and Camp Moshava. I went mixed swimming (which was about 95% mixed and about 5% swimming). For seven straight years I watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I wore my baseball cap backward.

But there were hints from an early age. I remember, around age 6, I cried when the barber cut off my payos. (He also removed half my ear lobe.) I always liked wearing black. When my friends played Nintendo, I would sneak off and read “The Little Midrash Says.”

But no one wants to admit that he’s, you know, different. So in high school I started going out with girls. But deep down I knew I’d rather be sitting in a Kollel with guys.

In 12th grade I finally told one of my Rabbeim I was gray. He was very supportive. He gave me a bunch of Artscroll biographies. He got me a subscription to the Jewish Observer. He took me shopping for my first black hat.

The hardest thing was telling my family. My father had taken me to baseball games, to the Israel Day Parade. He dreamed that I would study medicine and join his practice treating nervous gall bladders. Today he realizes that I will probably live in Passaic, work in computers and have children named Shraga and Pessie

The good news is that I have met other guys who like wearing jackets, even though they grew up in Teaneck and the Five Towns. They helped me understand that I was not alone, that Boro Park and Lakewood are full of guys like me.

Rabbi Schwartz: Chezkie, thank you. Our next panelist is Nachi G.

Nachi: Hello everyone. My name is Nachi and I’m gray. It takes some courage to say that. I remember in high school all my friends were really into sports and I just wanted to sing like Lipa Schmeltzer.

My brother and sister would make comments. They’d say, “Nathan’s such a frummie.” And my mother would say, “Don’t say that. Maybe he’ll end up that way.” She tried to get me to join NCSY, Bnei Akiva, anything where I might meet some girls. But all I kissed were mezuzos.

As a teenager I stopped eating chodosh and cholov nochri and pas akum – I lost a lot of weight. My mother got upset, but my dad said it was just a passing phase, like the time I went four months without changing my socks.

I started talking yeshivish, everything was geshmak or gevalt. In my bedroom I hung a photo of Rav Aharon Kotler. I stopped shaving, but everyone thought I was trying to look like Brad Pitt.

After high school my father wanted me to go to a Religious Zionist yeshiva – Shaalvim or Hakotel. But I went to Toras Moshe and after Elul I switched to the Mir. What an experience! I sat in a bais medrash with a thousand guys who had stopped learning math in fourth grade.

Around Chanuka, my parents came to visit me in Israel and I told them I was gray. (At the time I was really black. It was a white lie.) To my surprise they were great, totally supportive. My mother switched to cholov yisroel and stopped bringing her smutty magazines into the house, stuff like Popular Mechanics and Accounting Today. My dad said I could go to the Mir in Brooklyn, as long as I promised to study accounting at Touro. He even gave me permission to live in Crown Heights, on the condition that I not marry a Lubavitcher.

My sister is still hostile. Maybe it’s because I said her Tinkerbell nightlight was pritzusdik. But I’m working on her. Last month I bought her a book called “The Adventures of Chanoh Soroh Fraydel, the Shayna Maydel in a Shtaty Shaytel.”

Rabbi Schwartz: Our third panelist is Mordy S.

Mordy: Despite what you see, it actually took me a long time to admit that I was gray.

Today I look like a typical chunyuk. But I didn’t always. I grew up in Boston, went to Maimonides, learned Gemara with girls. One of my best friends growing up was Irish Catholic. (Sadly, he was injured in a freak miniature golfing accident and now speaks only in iambic pentameter.) My mother taught me my bar mitzva parsha.

So there I was – a poster boy for Modern Orthodoxy. But little by little, I started to change. Once I criticized my sister for wearing pants and talking to boys; she was four and a half. I stopped going to movies. I stopped reading English books not published by Targum Press. I stopped eating broccoli and cauliflower. (Not because of bugs; I just hate vegetables.)

At my parents’ suggestion, I started seeing a psychologist. He was a shul member, a friend of the family. He dabbled in hypnosis. Every time he heard the word “marmalade,” he would start singing the “The Whiffenpoofs Song” in Pig Latin. At our first session, I told him, “Modern Orthodoxy is hollow and hypocritical.” “Yes,” he replied, “but what don’t you like about it?” He suggested I go to an Ivy League college for a few years, then decide. I told him that we were created to learn Torah, not to study “The Architecture of the Igloo.”

My parents suggested I change therapists. The new guy was an old guy, 83 years old and certain that all religious devotion is a sign of neurosis. “Do you think God really cares if you hold your tzitzis during Shema in your left hand between your ring finger and pinkie?” he asked me. “I don’t know about God, but I care more about the Mishnoh Bruroh’s opinion than yours,” I replied. After six months, he announced his retirement, left Boston and opened the first Dunkin’ Donuts outlet at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul.

I asked my Rebbe what to do with certain Modern Orthodox seforim I still had from high school (Soloveitchik, Steinsaltz, Ibn Ezra). He said that they were not vaday kefiroh, so I mustn’t burn them, but it would be assur to give them away, because the recipient might read them and think they are true. In the meantime, I hid them in a box under my collection of Star Trek action figures.

I am still dealing with a lot of issues, but today I can proudly look at myself in the mirror and say out loud, “I am gray.”

Rabbi Schwartz: Our final panelist is Rachel O.

Rachel: It is very exciting to be here and be called by my new name “Rachel,” after a lifetime under the name “Shannon.” I was born Christian. I started my conversion process with a respected rabbi, who unfortunately was not schooled in telephone etiquette and had a lot of friends he wanted me to …

Rabbi Schwartz: Um, Rachel? Do you know what the topic of this panel is?

Rachel: Sure. “Being a Ger in the Modern Orthodox World.”

Rabbi Schwartz: I think that’s all for tonight. Thank you to our panelists, our audience and the sponsor of this evening’s program: Borsalino. Since 1857: When Your Father-in-Law Can Buy You the Very Best.

Copyright © 2010 by Eli D. Clark