Birthday Cake

Blog Entries, Essays

Throughout my years of attending birthdays, I will posit that all cakes can fit safely and neatly into a few general categories:

#1 — Oh, It’s Birthday Cake

This first category is basically the industry standard. It’s the type of cake with frosting and scripty lettering; the icing forms decadent flowers and artistic flourishes. At its core, the cake itself is either brown or yellow, but that’s not to say chocolate or vanilla because the taste is either too rich and sweet, or else completely bland; the texture is chalk-dry and yet greasy. There are too many air bubbles, making it feel like you’re eating chemical frosting floating in the clouds, or a layer of soap, that description dependant on how much you like the birthday boy/girl. It’s standard birthday cake, and it sucks.

#2 — Wait, Hold On, That’s Actually Good Cake

Then there’s the type of cake (usually homemade) that the first obligatory nibble becomes something of a moment of pleasant discovery: that it is in fact really tasty stuff. You might find yourself going back for a second piece, which in itself is remarkable, because you had been going strong on your diet for three months. You’ll scoop that piece onto the festive-print paper plate, hidden under a matching (and quite useless, you’ll agree) napkin, intending to eat it later, slowly. But shock has numbed your impulse control. Then you go for thirds. If anyone asks, you’re ready to tell them that you’re taking this additional piece for a friend. In a way, you are.

#3 — What-Were-You-Thinking Cake*

A well-deserving third category, this is the sort of cake that demands an entirely different response than polite acceptance/decline, or feverish frenzy. The first reaction is, “What were you thinking?”

I’m talking carrot cake. Strawberry jelly stuff that jiggles and causes instant lightheadedness from the sugar rush. Paleo brownies that taste like tar. ‘Slightly burnt’ granola-oatmeal concoctions that require a chisel and a skilled foreigner to extract the edible portions. The sorts of creations that cause people to talk softly to the creator and offer cryptic recommendations for homeopathic remedies, saying it’ll really ease the stress — whatever that’s supposed to mean — and they line up for thirds with sympathetic eyes even though they’re strict carnivores and shouldn’t be eating anything vegetarian but they just can’t resist one more bite. 


*Thanks to Moshe Delerb of The Long Short Way for bringing this to my attention

No Matter Why

Blog Entries, Essays

Something I’ve noticed is that big companies promote their products with promises of meaning. Verizon may have done it best with their tagline: “Better matters.” Better mobile service, internet; more efficiency, go with us, we’re the better brand. And better matters. This is important.

Verizon

Mazda has a slightly vaguer message. They say, “Driving matters”. Does driving matter? This is trickier territory. Mazda believes it does, or at least wants you to think so. It’s important and meaningful, and ostensibly, Mazda takes it seriously too. Therefore, you should buy a Mazda.

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ConEdison is an energy company, and it makes sense that of any industry, they would be the one to mess this up. Deliciously ugly: “Everything matters.” In fact, they have a whole ad campaign with things like “Sunday Matters”, “Inspiration Matters” or “Trust Matters” as the headlines, with the ConEdison logo and tagline on the side. They’re like the unpopular kids at the tagline party who get good grades in school because they’re nerds but have no style and definitely no original tagline. And since “____ matters” is in, they run up, double-chin bouncing, whining, “Don’t forget about us! We’re cool, too!” Fumbling, catching their breath, wheezing – “Stuff matters! Things matter! EVERYTHING MATTERS.”

Con Ed

So sure Verizon and Mazda are giving ConEdison death looks, because hey, they just totally killed their vibe, am I right? Saying everything matters means that nothing really does. Everything has its place, but there must be a hierarchy of value for us to live lives and make conscious choices.

I don’t like the direction that these taglines take. It used to be, “We offer kick-ass mobile service”, and “We make sweet cars”. And that was…

What’s that ConEdison? You what? Speak up. “We sell lots of energy.”

Ah – ok. Thank you. Anyway, that used to be good enough. You needed a product, you picked your choice from the competition (assuming a free market economy) and life goes on. What’s with this “Blah blah blah matters?”

Advertising is nothing new. The thing I’m objecting to is that they’re targeting our values. It’s subtle, but if you just let an idea like potentially better mobile service having value sit in your head, it will have value. Driving will have value, if you let it be a repetitive tagline in your head.

The only time a tagline like that should be used is in art shops, where “Framing Matters” can be a whimsical pun that artsy types can get away with.

Bamba

Blog Entries, Essays

There are things in life you can’t run from. We all have weaknesses, but luckily we also have distractions to keep these weaknesses at bay, to keep them from gaining the upper hand. But then there are those things that are relentless. As if they have a mind of their own. As if they know how hard you’re running. As if they’re a step ahead of you every time.

My weakness is an Israeli peanut butter snack called Bamba. Think of those fluffy packaging peanuts, except that they actually taste like peanuts. Think of those orange cylinders that melt on your tongue and become paste with each chew. Think of greasy fingers coated in sticky peanut powder. You tell yourself you won’t lick them clean, but you’re fooling yourself. You suck those peanut butter fingers like a straw slurps up a line of cocaine. You’re not really in control at that point. Not anymore. You stare at your hand like it belongs to someone else. You want to drop the bag, but you can’t. There’s no stopping until the bag is done, and there’s no relief when that happens either. You feel like your stomach is coated. Your mouth feels like it’s made out of hot, burning plastic. Peanut butter in your teeth. Peanut butter on your hands. Peanut butter on your phone. Peanut butter in your nose from when you used a tissue. Peanut butter. Peanut butter everywhere.

There’s a little baby on the bag, a mascot of sorts. A grinning, bucktoothed infant, smiling with beady eyes, goading you to take another bite, just one more handful. Those black, unblinking eyes. This crack baby, it’s witnessing your failure. It’s witnessing your weakness. And it’s smiling. Those big letters on the package, that one word: Bamba. If it could talk, it would be screaming. Oh, how it shrieks.

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In Israel, kids eat Bamba growing up. Studies show that this helps prevent allergies to peanut butter in the future. It’s a wild idea, but I’m not impressed. I’m not excited. Me, I’m disgusted. It’s disturbing to think of kids already hooked on this. The idea that it’s some sort of cure for allergies is perverse. It’s like hearing that eating raw vomit can cure heart disease. It’ll save lives, but our dignity won’t stick around for a second helping. I don’t know; maybe you find the whole thing very inspirational. I had to watch three episodes of The Office to escape the thought.

That’s the thing. I try to run. I try to escape it. But those horrible eyes burn holes through the back of my head. That baby in his flower vase diaper is watching me. It knows I can’t help myself. It knows that it’s the thing I can’t truly run from.

Even as I shake my head to rid myself of the thought, even as I click play on the fourth episode, it waits.


The Case of Variety vs. Naiveté

Blog Entries, Essays

In this age of information and technology, knowledge is power. Data is the currency. Variety is paramount. Our independence is defined by our knowledge of our choices. And with that knowledge we are enlightened. How else would we make an educated decision for anything?

We look down at those who only know one way of living. How can they be happy if they don’t know what’s out there?

But it’s worth asking: Is it really naïve to know only one way of thinking and doing things? Or is it perhaps an expression of innocence, of purity? Nowadays, purity is scarce. Our lifestyle is one of knowing every side to the equation, being aware of all the choices. Every day, we live with choices while knowing that others exist. It’s a much harder life. It can be torture.

“But at least I’m not naïve,” you think. As if naiveté is the greatest sin one can commit. As if ignorance of other choices negates your current one. If anything, it’s the opposite. People appreciate fewer choices, not more. Most of us don’t want to choose between 24 different types of jelly. Psychologist and social scholar Barry Shwartz has done a lot of research on this subject. Watch his fascinating video here.

For years everything was about choice. “Choices are freedom.” That was the slogan. It was a myth. Fragmentation is frustration. All we want now is wholeness. It’s currently #trending.

It’s no longer so great to split yourself into a million different pieces. Now the goal is to put yourself back together. Can you focus on any one thing for an extended period of time? We’re the ADD generation, and I’m not talking about kids on Ritalin. We are driven to distraction. We can’t focus on things for extended periods of time. The instantaneous communication of smartphones has divided our attention into dozens of separate compartments. Tolerance for delay has dropped drastically. It’s hard to sit with one thing anymore, because there’s always something else to watch or listen to, there’s always someone else we want to spend time with. Efficiency is the prize. We multi-task while we eat, always doing something else. Or it’s the other way around, like eating popcorn while watching a movie, food as entertainment. There’s always a way to make something better. Always a way to obsess over trivial efficiency when you know there are more choices. Usually about the trivial things.

But, imagine. Imagine believing in one religion, adhering to one philosophy. This is what we want now. We played it safe for too long, saying, “I don’t know” so that we’d never be wrong about the big issues. Republican or democrat? God or Evolution? I don’t know. It’s easier that way.

Of course, the answer for iPhone vs. Android is clear and impassioned. You see people’s chosen sports team championed beyond any rationale. After all, look at the stats. Compare this to that. Know the choices.

How about going with one way of thinking for a bit?

I think it’s time to slow down and reassess. Do we like where we are now? Do we really value choice above all else? (1. Yes or 2. No)

There’s an entire movement in Europe which celebrates slowness, though I think the Slow Movement is a silly name. I think what they’re really after is wholeness. Simplicity, but not all that modern minimalist stuff. To be on the same page in all departments in life.

Hey, it’s worth a shot, right?

I will say this though: If the biggest obstacle between you and being single-minded is the fear of being naïve, well, that’s just another world of irony.

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The Essay Journal

Blog Entries, Essays, Jewish Stuff

The following is my personal account of my writing process for the My Life Chassidus Applied Essay Contest:

Jan 19,

I got the text from my mother first. “There’s an essay contest online, with a chance to win $10,000. Go for it!” And later in the day my friend Baruch texted me the link well: “This is right up your alley.”

I like to write, and sometimes I write quite well. That’s the reason I got these texts, because my friends know this about me. And, well, my mother too.

So I went online to check it out. The contest seemed simple — not easy, just simple: Take an idea of Chassidus and show how, when applied, it can solve contemporary problems. The first place winner would receive $10,000, second would get $3,600, third, $500.

All in all, not a bad gig. Especially if you enjoy writing. Little did I know what was coming. And I wasn’t without doubts. By the time I printed out the contest Rules and Guidelines, I was one massive sinkhole of doubt.

First of all, realistically speaking, there were tons of writers “out there” with more experience and writing ability than me. Second, and maybe not as realistic, I didn’t think this was the ideal time to write a $10,000 essay. My writing goes through phases, just as any art would, and this was a particularly dry spell. And this essay was not one I could take shortcuts with; no amount of fluff would make up for actual content, even if my writing was in top form. Applied Chassidus is the real deal and my topic would have to be strong and well researched. In this field too, I was not at my best. It’s not that I don’t believe in it — I do. Chassidus has enriched my life and become synonymous with my Judaism and my connection to God. I also believe it’s our best shot at getting the world from a state of exile to redemption. The issue is that applied Chassidus requires… applying Chassidus, which means knowing and learning Chassidus. I hadn’t been learning so much.

And who said I was such a good writer anyway? Two people texted me, and one of them was my mother. But this last doubt was the easiest to expel, because I’m pretty confident in my writing ability overall. I just needed to get back into the swing of things. And what did it matter that only two people had texted me? I didn’t need fifty people to think I’m good. Just the judges. And it was hard. I was going to have to learn more. One couldn’t expect to just sit down and conjure up a winning essay without any effort.

There were some complications however. The Spring college semester was about to start, and I besides for the time that would take out of my days, it would divide my mind into compartments. And I knew I couldn’t do this halfheartedly (Chassidic pun). The rules were long and comprehensive; they covered every possible detail. This wasn’t surprising, considering the $10,000 prize. I had to get to work.

Later,

I decided that my writing style would have to be Easy-Read. Those other experience writers would probably be going with Scholarly or Academic. My best shot would be with clear speech which borderlined on actual dialogue. Nothing says Applied Chassidus like the friendly tone of real life human being. I just hoped I qualified.

I began listing topics I was sure I’d be able to write about: keeping a beard, having a Mashpia, practicing hiskafia… but they weren’t speaking to me. These weren’t ‘contemporary problems’. And besides, I was coming up with these ideas when I was supposed to be Davening. It doesn’t get more hypocritical than that. But I kept running back to my notebook, trying to formulate the best idea possible. Maybe… maybe I could write about Davening! And banishing foreign thoughts, even if they’re about Chassidus! The obvious problem was that I wasn’t doing that successfully at that moment, so that was out.

Jan 20,

While the initial fire may have died down to a manageable inferno, the ideas kept coming. Depression. Anxiety. Chassidus was all around me. I kept thinking of topics. And so I decided to write out short paragraphs to test drive each idea. If I could write it out in my voice, that would be a starting point. One idea that almost made it was Mo’ach Shalet Al Halev — that the brain rules over the heart. I was going to incorporate the story of Moshe Meisels who spied on Napoleon, and how he controlled his reaction to being accused. The punchline is: “Mo’ach Shalet Al Halev is the Aleph Beis of Chabad Chassidus.” What does that mean? Well, it would be easy to take it from there. But nothing came of that, either.

Jan 26,

The going wasn’t great. More than a week has passed and I had yet to pick a topic. Nothing to show for the time ‘Essay’ spent at the top of my To-Do list. No terrible first draft. All I had was written about how I’d written nothing. At least it wasn’t negative, right? No bad feelings. Right?!

So, I decided then that I needed to up the tempo, raise the temperature of the fire under my chair until I got up screaming and my voice was heard even if my pain was unfelt. I would sit down to write and produce random fragments…

“Snow was falling, not in big clumps, but rather in small steady flakes, content and patient with confidence that that it would cover all the land in whiteness.”

How was I going to pick a topic? I needed to learn more. What should I learn, how should I learn? With whom? When? I didn’t know the answers, but I was honest enough to know I was in the midst of a thick cloud of procrastination.

I kept going back to the conviction that I would use my Easy-Read style. That would save me, surely. Simon Jacobson added in his weekly video series, “The essay should come from the heart, should not be overly scholarly, and that anyone could do this.”

Feb 3,

Nothing. No magic. Dead time. “I really should start,” I told myself. Daily. But no ideas were coming to me. And then… It came like any other writing urge, squirming around inside me trying to get out, causing me to twitch and shudder until I safely got to a paper and poured it out like vomit, and only some of that is figurative. I sat there until I was spent, with (figurative) drool dripping off my chin. It was raw and messy. That’s how all rough drafts work. The topic was Inspiration, what to do when you don’t have it. It was weak, but at least I had something. You can’t critique a blank canvas. Still, I looked back on those weeks as drifting despair, weeks of procrastinated confusion.

Feb 5,

I had my essay all typed up on Google Docs, trying hard to ignore the incoherence, the ugliness. I printed out what I had from the computer lab in college, complete with a little title graphic: Inspiration with a clip-art feather icon attached to the N’s tail at the end of the word.

Feb 15,

With less than a week left, I began to get desperate. True, I had a second draft, but it wasn’t much better. It was just typed and had a few of Uri Perlman’s gentle criticisms. I kept dragging the papers around with me everywhere, so every time I did homework, they were right in my face, or hiding behind a textbook in my bag. I kept avoiding the essay, even as I spent so much thought on how I needed to work on it.

Feb 17,

It was by mistake that I stopped into the writing center at college. The kind lady there read over what I had and encouraged me to keep going. I printed out a revised version and felt that much less anxious that the final time to submit the essay was only 2 days away.

Feb 20,

Toughest essay in my life? I would never know for sure, but even as I clicked ‘submit’, I knew I was making personal history. 7 Drafts.

Draft #1 was written in zal, Draft #2 was printed from college, with minor edits. Draft #3 incorporated the story of Elisha and the woman, and was edited a bit more. By Draft #4 I thought I had it down. Then I called Baruch on the bus heading home the day before it was all due. The result of the conversation was that I covered the pages in red ink till it looked like I had killed a small animal on them. I showed this version with all the marks to J. E., who gave it a cursory glance and wasn’t very helpful. I showed it to S. T., who was entirely too helpful. It took me a while to recover.

Nighttime, February 19th. I went to sleep sad. Tired, feeling worthless. Aware of the work ahead, and the 24-hour window. Taking into account the hours of sleep, the hours of college, plus Davening and chitas, there were some 6 hours of actual time I could invest in this essay. It was a countdown.

Draft #5 received all the changes, and still there were mistakes. I was missing little spelling typos, grammar inconsistencies. I was in it too deeply to see the mess-ups. But Mary was a counselor at college and she saw them. She was frank with me. She said, if I wanted to win $10,000, I had to do what the judges wanted. She was right, of course. I edited some more, trying to find the structure within my artistic barf.

I turned to Draft #6. It was based on an outline I created haphazardly during Speech class at 3:00, and it was printed at 3:30. It cut down a lot of what gave the essay character, Easy-Read style be damned. This version followed a format of problem/solution, and anything that was fluff or didn’t belong was tossed. In essence, I didn’t do much more than copy and paste onto a new document, with minor additions bridging the void of what was chopped. But Baruch wasn’t convinced. Neither was Yakov. They thought that Draft #5 had more of a chance. That it spoke a more powerful message. At the time, I was ready to be done. I had zero faith in my own writing, and my own judgment. I was truly relying on other people, and now based on what other people had said (Baruch’s mother and Mary from college), Draft #6 was better off. I spent a long time being indecisive. Time I didn’t have.

So I made Draft #7, which was took the good parts of Draft #5 and added them to Draft #6. I still had the structure, now I was trying to stitch in the character. It was a lot like trying to keep a dying cow alive and patching it up with the right organs, rather than giving birth to something new, something beautiful.

In the last hour, my father literally walked me through it over the phone. We went over the entire essay, fixing the dumb mistakes, editing the grammar issues, trying to make it flow seamlessly. It wasn’t my best work. But the whole process was pretty impressive. And then it was 11:59, and I sent it in right in middle of making corrections. There was a bit of panic: I was using an older Mac, and the document editing program was ‘Pages’ and I was barely able to export it back to Word before the end. No time left. Submit, that’s it. Over. Breathing. Laughing even. Expelling the nervous laugh gas that was bubbling up inside me. Now I had to wait until March 18th.

I thought about this essay a lot, going over what went into it. The frustrations. All the people who helped me. Baruch went above and beyond in his editorship, responding to instantaneous corrections in real time. His help was invaluable. I couldn’t have submitted anything decent without his involvement. And with everything, it wasn’t an essay I wrote easily, or even that well, necessarily. There was less of “I’ll write an original essay and it will do fine in the contest” and a lot more of “do this because they want me to”. I had foolishly entertained the thought of winning until the very last day, and by then I was past any hope. At the end of it all, I just wanted to be done, finished. And I when it was finally over, I was exhausted. And possibly a bit relieved.

March 25,

I didn’t even make the finalists. I saw the essays that won, and decided that some of them were true winners, and others were rather dry, and not to my taste at all. I think the lessons I learned from this essay experience were best taught through my utter lack of mention at all. It forced my essay’s message to be worthy by its own virtue, rather than just the right words at the right time, judged by the right people. The essay reverted back to its original message of something to be applied, not just distilled into an essay format. When the fantasy of winning subsided in disappointment, all that was left was the original idea, compelling it to be true for its own sake. And that made it all worthwhile.


My Life Chassidus Applied Essay Contest

Essays, Jewish Stuff

The following essay was my entry to the My Life Chassidus Applied Essay Contest:

Inspiration

How should one approach the problem of when Judaism appears unexciting? At times we are inspired and excited to be Jews and Chassidim, but at other times even simple tasks seem impossible.

As an artist with artist friends, I hear the word ‘Inspiration’ thrown around a lot, with a capital I. Inspiration is described as the process of being stimulated to do or feel something. It’s a time when creativity flows freely, without restraint. It is generally a happy time, a productive time. It’s a burst of energy for the writer to be prolific and for the painter to paint, for the singer/composer to come up with moving melodies. It’s an important state of being for a Chassid also, who can find enjoyment in his learning while inspired. He appreciates doing Mitzvos. His Davening is enthusiastic, and he sees significance in his actions.

The trouble is, inspiration doesn’t last forever. In most cases it doesn’t last for more than a short time. When I’m inspired, it feels like I can do anything today. When I’m not, I can’t even imagine how I did anything in the past. Today? Out of the question. Life resumes as it was before inspiration hit, and nothing has changed. Creative people go back to staring at blank notebooks and empty canvases. Chassidim see their Avodah as robotic and dull. There’s no life in learning, or Davening to Hashem. It’s not exciting, and worse, it can be painful.

Just doing what we are meant to do can be very difficult. Lack of inspiration is often times coupled with feelings of worthlessness that rise up and assault us. The artist says, “I have no real talent. All my earlier work was chance, a fluke.” Or worse, it was contrived, it was faked to look like the real thing. The artist so strongly identifies with his creative side that the struggle of creativity becomes superimposed and is now a struggle for his entire identity. The same is true for the Chassid. If I’ve experienced excitement about my Davening in the past, but today I don’t, was it ever authentic?

Of course, it’s more tempting to procrastinate and wait for the feeling of inspiration to come back to you. The work isn’t so easy now, but when inspiration hits, it will be.And it might even work. There’s a certain surety that the warm feeling will be back, fizzling inside you, laughing and trying to spill itself out onto a fresh canvas. Oh, I’ll get so much done when I’m inspired. This might also be the reason some authors will tell you their book “took five years to write”. Some people only write when they’re in the mood.

But Judaism doesn’t work like that; it’s not about being “in the mood”. Being Jewish is about the here and now – inspired or not, here I come. So for the Chasid, this time of uninspired Judaism can be particularly difficult. Because Judaism is not a religion. It’s a way of life. It’s an identity. There are halachos for literally every aspect of our lives, from the second we wake up until the time we go to sleep. There’s always a mitzvah to perform, and if there are even a few moments to spare, we should be learning Torah. The question becomes, how can I learn and Daven throughout the day when I feel dead and my actions feel dry, my concentration is not there and I’m overall very… uninspired?

Why is this inspiration so temporary? Isn’t doing what you love and believe in supposed to fill you with a sense of joy and happiness? Aren’t we supposed to love serving God and always find it exciting?

The solution can be found in a Ma’amer by the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, who explains the story written in Navi (Malachim II). As follows:

A woman came to the prophet Elisha.

“My husband has been taken from me by his debtors. All I have left is my two sons, and soon, they’ll be taken from me, too.”

Elisha asked, “What do you have in your house?”

She answered, “A small jar of oil.”

Elisha responded, “Collect all the empty vessels in your house. Borrow from your neighbors, as many as possible. Fill them with your jar of oil.”

The woman returned home and did as instructed.

The oil flowed miraculously into all the vessels, and stopped pouring only after the last vessel was filled.

 

The Rebbe’s interpretation is this:

“The woman represents the Jewish people; Elisha the prophet represents Hashem. The husband that was taken away is the fire of passion (Ishi = husband, Aish = flame). The two sons correspond to the two forces of Love and Fear.

The Jew is asking of Hashem, my passion is gone, and all I have left are my love and fear. But I can’t hold on for that much longer. Help.

The response is to gather and fill empty vessels. Borrow from friends and mentors. What we need to do is create space for that inspiration. Because the oil is coming. The oil of passion, inspiration and enthusiasm.

The Rebbe is explaining that we need to push on regardless, despite the lack of inspiration. It’s not cold, robotic Judaism, even if it looks like it. It’s a gathering of vessels that will soon be filled. It’s a call to action despite the lack of energy, no matter how unexcited we feel.

To explain further: Consider a river that dries up, leaving a parched, dry ravine behind. If you knew there was a flood coming, wouldn’t you invest time and effort in preparation to channel the water? True, it’s hot and dry and your throat is parched and there’s sweat running down your back, but if you built a dam to contain the water, or better yet, a mill that converted the water into some other energy, you can benefit from the water long after the initial flood. It takes hard work – uninspired work – but it will reap benefit for a long time afterwards.

Curing the writer’s block is no easy task, but it can be fixed by constant writing, specifically during the dry spells when you don’t feel inspired. Artists need to force themselves to keep writing, painting or singing even when they can’t feel the message they’re trying to convey. It’s awful; I’ve been there. Terrible words stare back at you on the paper: ugly, mutilated clichés, child’s prose and bad spelling. It’s forced, and it hurts coming out. But exercise helps, especially free writing: the writing that is done without restraint or expectation, paying no attention to grammar or personal insecurities. You have to ignore the bad thoughts telling you all sorts of unhelpful, negative things. And then, when you’re in a state of inspiration, you will be much more proficient in your deeds.

So too, a Chassid should force himself to learn even when he isn’t in the mood. Be Jewish even when it isn’t fun. You can go back over the bad drafts and dead pages of Gemara later, fixing mistakes, editing lyrics, breathing the fiery flame of passion into the coldness. It’s important to keep your spirits up during the drought, and it’s the awareness that helps: knowing that uninspired Judaism is just a temporary state of being, if only we can channel the energy that’s coming.

When you spend time learning Gemara when everything is dark and you feel jaded, burnt out, as if your life is crashing around you because this sugya is so monotonous and you question why you’re even learning it anyway, what you’re doing is building strong walls to contain the flash flood of inspiration when it comes. When you force yourself to say every word in Davening, it isn’t a worthless endeavor. You aren’t being inauthentic, even if it doesn’t feel natural. And you weren’t faking it in the past, either. You aren’t a hypocrite. When you look back at your hard work from the uninspired days, you’ll see clearly how it all contributed to the war effort.

This is what we have to do when we lack inspiration. We know it’s on its way, so let us be ready for it. We have to prepare by gathering the empty jugs of uninspired learning and Davening. We need to be confident in the knowledge that they will be filled with oil, with light and life and passion once more.


For the behind the scenes of this essay, click here.

“Jug” Mosaic Bas Relief by Michoel Muchnik

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword (part 2)

Blog Entries, Essays

(In continuation from last post)

The pen is certainly mighty. However, as mighty as the pen is, it is nothing without its words. The power of potential has no expression until it is manifest in some outer form. It needs a vehicle to communicate.

It’s true that words limit the pen, and painting limits the art. But what’s the point of potential? Why were we given abilities? Why is a pen a pen?

A pen is a pen to write words. We have potential in order to express ourselves. Is it our true self? Impossible. But it’s as close as we can get.

We are unique, subjective individuals. They say everyone sees colors differently. In a similar vein, I can describe any scene that I visualize in my mind and you will conjure up an entirely different image in your mind, no matter how detailed my description. That’s the extent of the communication ability we were given. It’s a morse-code version of what we really want to say. We enclose our thoughts and emotions into a medium of words for the other person to unpackage, and we hope they understand us.

We are meant to communicate. Is a writer still a writer if he doesn’t write? What if the musician retires? You can say that they are no longer expressing that part of themselves, and that potential has no outlet. Of course, we are much more than our expressions, untouchable beyond what we communicate. But we are given abilities of expression as gifts. Now is the time to discover how best to use them.

words1

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Blog Entries, Essays

The pen is mightier than the sword, they say. I’ve always understood this to mean that compared to a sword, the pen has greater destructive power as an offensive weapon. But I also find this saying rather crude, so permit me to use some poetic license.

Let’s replace the word “sword” with its anagram: “words”.

“The pen is mightier than the words.”

What might I mean by that? you ask. The pen is the instrument of language, the tool used to fashion words on paper, that which gives expression to the mind. But it itself is mightier than the words it writes. Because, before the words are written, a pen contains within it the potential for an infinite possibility of letters, words, symbols or shapes. Once the words are written, they take on a fixed meaning. No matter how loose or ambiguous it is in context, it will remain unchanged, rigid. Even if those words are used in a destructive way, just as a sword would, the message will fade in time.

A pen however, is an object of potential, a symbol of all that can be expressed. Its message is immortal, as long as there those left to convey it.

calligraphy82

A New Punctuation Mark: The Question/Comma

Blog Entries, Essays, Random

We have the period. It ends sentences.

We have the comma. It makes pauses in our sentences, and it also allows us to catch our breath.

We also have semi-colons; they allow us to complete a fragmented thought in the same sentence.

And we have the question mark, don’t we?

Well, why can’t we have a question mark that doesn’t end a sentence? you ask.

It’s incorrect to continue a sentence with lowercase words after a question mark (as in the line above), because the sentence has already been completed. The only recourse I have is to put a question mark and a comma like this — ?, — and it really doesn’t cut it.

I propose the use of a new unit of punctuation: The Question Comma. The goal here would be to use a question mark that wouldn’t finish the thought. Ok, maybe we can work on the name. Comma Mark? Quemma? Semi-Question Mark? Leave a comment if you have any ideas.

Comma Mark

The Comma Mark. The Question Comma. Or something.

Usage could include such examples as:

Who gave you permission?, because they must have been joking.

“Can I borrow your machete?,” he asked hopefully.

His name was… Jack?, Jake?, Josh?, and he was interning for the summer. 

In all of these examples, it wouldn’t make sense to end off where the question was. Not all questions are complete thoughts. Using this as semi colon or comma for questions would be swell. Sound great, right?