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Suffer the Children?

20121001_jihad_kid_terrorist_child_largeTwelve-year-olds don’t choose to become suicide bombers.

And true believers don’t send children as martyrs in place of themselves. The perpetrators of last week’s vicious attack on a Kurdish wedding in Turkey believe in nothing so much as violence as a means to their own power. It’s a sad sign of the times that we can almost admire the zealots of a few years ago who willingly gave their own lives for their ideals, no matter how convoluted those ideals may have been.

When fanatics eagerly give the last full measure of devotion — for which Abraham Lincoln praised the Union soldiers who sacrificed their lives at Gettysburg — we have to ask ourselves if we are prepared to sacrifice as much for our noble values as our enemies readily sacrifice in the name of terror.

Click here to read the whole article.

The Perils of Social Grade Inflation

Elephant n MouseHere’s a no-brainer.

You want to improve your basketball game. Would you rather practice one-on-one with your older brother, who’s on the JV team, or with Kobe Bryant?

Unless you possess a serious streak of masochism, you did not choose Kobe Bryant — for reasons that should be obvious: while you will definitely improve playing with someone marginally better than yourself, you will accomplish nothing by playing with someone exponentially better than you are. Except, in all likelihood, the rapid deflation of your self-esteem.

Applying this principle more broadly, it’s easy to see how associating with peers slightly better than ourselves — whether academically, professionally, or morally — will push us to higher levels in our own conduct and performance. But the benefits of implied social pressure disappear when we perceive our peer group to be functioning on a higher level than it actually is.

Read the whole article here.

In Memorium

Yesterday, we held a memorial service for Rita Cholet White, one of Block Yeshiva High School’s most beloved teachers for over 20 years.  After hearing the many stories and reflections, it’s hard to know whether she loved more or was loved more by her students.  Perhaps the question contains its own answer.  She was 85 years old.

Several years ago, when Madame White was honored by the school, I was asked to write her  bio for the Scholarship Gala journal.

I present the text here as it appeared.  She loved it then.  I have no doubt that she will love it now.

Rita Cholet White has been involved in primary, secondary, and higher education for over half a century (an extraordinary achievement, especially for a woman who is only 49 years old).  A Fulbright scholar, Madame White has appeared in Who’s Who in Education, Who’s Who in American Women, and Who’s Who International.  Presumably, one of these organizations will eventually discover who Madame White truly is.

A stalwart member of Block Yeshiva’s distinguished faculty since 1992, Madame White demonstrates her pedagogical dexterity by wearing many hats – as French teacher, English teacher, college adviser, and yearbook adviser.  Fortunately, the French like to wear hats.

More than just a faculty member, Madame White adds flare and panache to the halls of Block Yeshiva, dazzling students and staff alike with her sense of style and fashion, her stratified vocabulary in several languages, her pluck, her wit, her irrepressible good humor, and her remembrances of the McKinley administration.

Additional distinctions include a degree from the Sorbonne and the University of Nice, the HEW Certificate of Merit, the University of Richmond Certificate of Recognition as an outstanding teacher, and numerous honors that are beyond the capacity of our computer’s spell-check software.

Persistent rumors that Madame White posed as a model for the Mona Lisa and has BASE jumped from the Eiffel Tower remain unconfirmed.

Adieu, Madame.  We will miss you with all our hearts.

Near-death experience

1You’re ten years old and a sound sleeper, so it’s already unusual that something has woken you up in the middle of the night.  You go out into the hall to investigate.  There are strangers in the house and flashing lights out the window.  Your father tells you to go back to bed.

When you wake up the next morning, your mother has disappeared from your life.

It’s 1970, before school counselors or lettered conditions like PTSD.  Your father means well, but he’s not the communicative type, not one for expressing his feelings to others or eliciting others to share their feelings with him.  He’s from the Depression Era, and he barely saw his own father growing up during those desperate years.  He’s a veteran of the Second World War; difficulties are part of life.

He’s also dealing with his own trauma, as his wife lingers between life and death.

You get shipped off to stay with friends, or with your grandmother.  Very little is explained to you, and you understand even less.  Years later, there won’t be much that you remember, aside from the indelible images of that first night.

You won’t remember waking up the next morning to find your grandmother home with you instead of you parents.  You won’t remember when they took you to visit your mother one last time because no one thought she had much time left.  You won’t remember shouting at her for having abandoned you.  You won’t remember the outgoing, cheerful little boy you were before that cold, winter’s night.

You only remember how hard it was for you to talk to people from that moment forward.  You remember how easily you cried during the years that followed, and how much you hated yourself for crying so easily without understanding what made you that way.  You remember how you considered taking your own life, but always managed to convince yourself that you could do it tomorrow.

A decade passes before you really recover.  In some ways, you never recover at all.

Click here to read the whole essay.

Spitting Image 3:2 — Wood nymph with flowers

flower nymph

It’s always an auspicious omen when a wood nymph shows up with a gift of fresh-cut flowers on Sabbath eve.

Why we can’t say what we mean

matisse5a-2-webA picture is worth a thousand words.  Except when it isn’t.

You may have heard of Le Bateau, the work by French avant-garde painter Henri Matisse that hung upside down in New York’s Museum of Modern Art for 47 days back in 1961.  Looking at the painting, it’s hard to see why it mattered.

But that’s not the case when we communicate.  According to a recent study by the University of Minnesota, the use of emoji — those little yellow emoticons — are almost as likely to cause confusion as they are to evoke the emotions for which they are named.

Interviewing 334 subjects, researchers discovered that people argued over whether emoji communicate positive, negative, or neutral emotions about 25% of the time.  That’s a lot of befuddlement for a medium that’s supposed to make communication easier.

Hannah Miller, lead author of  the study, told Fortune Magazine that people could solve much of this confusion by “putting emojis in context, adding words into the mix.”

Now there’s a novel idea:  use actual words to say what you want to say.

screen-shot-2016-04-13-at-3-24-06-pmThe problem is, even that doesn’t always help, since the putrefaction of language that has resulted from advertising and political correctness, together with the corrosive influence of texting, has degraded not only our ability to articulate our thoughts clearly but also our capacity for clear thinking altogether.

Whether the deterioration of thought has influenced the deterioration of language or vice versa is the topic of these musings from 2009.

In Memorium

Father-son-fist-bumpToday marks the second anniversary of my father’s death.  He was a man of unyielding principle and discipline, of meticulous honesty and unwavering standards.  He had the ability to create an instant rapport with others and charm them without guile or manipulation, but he never seemed able to completely let down his emotional guard to truly connect.  He could be hard, but he instilled in me a code of ethics and integrity that have formed the foundation of my sense of self and my worldview.

I wrote this tribute to him for Father’s Day in 2001:

Honor (is learned from) Thy Father


Affluenza: Nothing new but the name

why-do-you-think-that-juxtaposing-an-image-and-some-words-is-sufficent-authority-for-you-to-act-like-a-spoiled-insensitive-bratSome verbal atrocities are either too offensive or too absurd to ever be forgotten. Like Jonathan Gruber’s candid admission that “the stupidity of the American voter … was really, really critical for [Obamacare] to pass.” Or Brian Williams misremembering that he had been shot down in a helicopter. Or Al Gore’s claim that he invented the internet (although, in all fairness, that was not quite what he said).

But few violations of common sense and common decency compare to that of Jean Boyd, the judge who concluded that probation and rehab were sufficient punishment for Ethan Crouch — after he pled guilty to taking the lives of four people while driving drunk — because he was a victim of affluenza.

Now, two years later, after Ethan Crouch has violated his parole, fled to Mexico with his mother, and finally ended up back in custody, the Washington Post would like us to reconsider whether the diagnosis is really so ridiculous after all. Rallying experts to support his case, Post editor Fred Barbash suggests that affluenza may indeed be an authentic malady, citing ASU professor of psychology Suniya S. Luthar and Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College:

“High-risk behavior, including extreme substance abuse and promiscuous sex, is growing fast among young people from communities dominated by white-collar, well-educated parents. These kids … show serious levels of maladjustment as teens, displaying … marijuana and alcohol abuse, including binge drinking [and] abuse of illegal or prescription drugs.”[What also stands out] is the type of rule-breaking – widespread cheating and random acts of delinquency such as stealing from parents or peers among the affluent, as opposed to behavior related to self-defense, such as carrying a weapon, among the inner-city teens.”

“[What also stands out] is the type of rule-breaking – widespread cheating and random acts of delinquency such as stealing from parents or peers among the affluent, as opposed to behavior related to self-defense, such as carrying a weapon, among the inner-city teens.”

And finally: Serious depression or anxiety among affluent kids is “is two to three times national rates.”

No arguments from this quarter. But what does not appear in Mr. Barbash’s lengthy commentary is even the most meager attempt to identify why affluence produces teenage miscreants. What is it about growing up with every possible advantage that predisposes so many children to criminally irresponsible behavior?

The answer is quite simple.

Click here to find out why.

Mistaking Identity

08.18.15-IntersexDennis Prager is at it again, this time with the simultaneously radical and reactionary, bigoted, sociopathic, and really-not-very-nice assertion that transgender people should take names and employ pronouns appropriate to their chosen identity.

Quick!  Inside the nearest shelter… the sky is falling.  Civil society may never recover.

Okay, yes, I am being sarcastic.  Guilty as charged.  But sometimes the logical and moral convolutions the politically-correct allow for no outlet other than simple mockery.

But I apologize if I hurt anyone’s feelings.  I know it’s terribly bad form these days to speak the truth.

However, it should come as no surprise that the moral boundaries of civil society grow ever blurrier, in this case by design.  These winds were already blowing with gale force when I published the following essay back in 2011:

When their third child, Storm, was born, Kathy Witterick and David Stocker announced the birth of their new baby with the following email:

“We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).”

Needless to say, friends and family alike have trouble understanding Witterick and Stocker’s unconventional approach to child-raising. With stereotyping, bullying, and social stigma inevitable parts of growing up, it’s easy to argue that manufacturing an additional obstacle to healthy social development is hardly in the child’s own best interest.

“Everyone keeps asking us, ‘When will this end?'” says Witterick. “And we always turn the question back. Yeah, when will this end? When will we live in a world where people can make choices to be whoever they are?”


A single family hardly constitutes a trend. But consider the Egalia preschool in Stockholm, Sweden, where staff avoid such culturally loaded words as “him” and “her,” addressing the children as “friends” rather than “boys and girls.” According to the AP, “breaking down gender roles is a core mission in [Sweden’s] national curriculum,” and many preschools have hired “gender pedagogues” to devisestrategies for eliminating “stereotypes.”

germanyCould they be right? Is sexual identity nothing more than arbitrary social programming? By eliminating every vestige of guidance from a child’s environment might parents actually help him learn to make better choices? Will indoctrinating a child with the conviction that every imaginable alternative is equally viable produce a canny, confident, and even-keeled adult?

Well, would it make travel easier if we uprooted every street sign and tore down every traffic signal? Would it make navigation easier if we burned every map and disabled every GPS?

The hazards of unrestricted freedom often go overlooked in a society that values personal autonomy above all else. But the formula for resolving the tension between individual expression and social boundaries was articulated by King Solomon, the wisest of all men, nearly three thousand years ago.

Hear, my son, the moral guidance of your father,
and do not forsake the teaching of your mother
(Proverbs 1:8).

Giving voice to the self-evident truth that men are men and women are women, Solomon alludes to the distinct manner in which a father and a mother each makes a unique contribution to the psychological and ethical development of their child. From the father comes instruction— formal guidance in the ways of moral values and discipline. How to know right from wrong, and how to choose good over evil — this is the kind of wisdom most effectively communicated through fatherly counsel and direction.

Complementing the father’s instruction are the lessons absorbed from the mother, who plays the primary role in creating the atmosphere of personal responsibility and spiritual commitment that should permeate a home. It is mainly through the intangible, unquantifiable influence of the mother that a child develops moral sensitivity. Neither father nor mother can successfully assume the role of the other, for our distinct psycho-spiritual complexions are part of the design according to which the universe was formed.

Parents who refuse to assert moral principles, albeit in the name of tolerance and progressivism, succeed only in making their home an environment of intellectual anarchy that will inevitably lead to confusion and dysfunction later in life.


Train a youth according to his way;
even when he grows old he will not depart from it
(Ibid. 22:6).

Often cited, correctly, as the source for individualizing education based upon the singular needs of every child, this proverb contains another element often overlooked: the word “youth” — na’ar, in Hebrew — implies immaturity. Truth be told, the majority of us suffer from a sophomoric certitude in the infallibility of our own wisdom. And children are the most susceptible of all to such delusions.

Wanting desperately to believe in their own independence, children seize hold of any excuse, no matter how irrational, to invalidate the wisdom of their parents. Left to his own devices, a youth will steer confidently into the heart of the nearest storm, delighted to be free from the steady guidance of the parent who could have saved him from catastrophe.

Like old wine and fine cuisine, genuine wisdom is an acquired taste, and the immature mind will reject its lessons as surely as the untrained palate will disdain the delicacies of a Cordon Bleu in favor of peasant’s fare smothered in salt and ketchup. But we do our children no favor by making it easier for them to marching confidently over the edge of the nearest precipice. Gentle instruction administered with care and consistency will lay the foundations of moral discernment as a child grows into adulthood.


In his famous legal discourse regarding character development, Maimonides writes that “people are influenced by the society in which they live” (Hilchos Dayos 6:1). Among the many dangers of the modern world, none may be as insidious as the attack upon all natural and moral boundaries. Electric lighting pushes away the darkness of night, central air conditioning and heating insulate us from the changing of the seasons, cars and planes shrink the distance between faraway places, and electronic communication eliminates all delay in correspondence and information.

No one is suggesting that we live like the Amish and eschew modern technology. But these inventions are not as innocuous as we wish to believe: in the same way that physical boundaries have been breached, so too have moral boundaries become increasingly blurred and the path of moral conduct ever more difficult to find.

Maze-2-1024x717Respect for traditional family structure continues to erode. The personal conduct of political leaders raises less concern than the carelessness that leads to getting caught. Violent criminals are cast as victims while defenders of life and limb are vilified as exploiters and oppressors. And the role of human sexuality in mental health and social stability is ever more profoundly misunderstood. Political correctness and moral equivalence have so muddied conventional wisdom that young and old alike often fear censure from their peers for daring to judge even the most abhorrent behaviors.

Yes, children need to learn to make their own choices, and today’s helicopter parents who micromanage every aspect of their children’s lives are more likely to produce crippled than capable adults. Nevertheless, we dare not overcompensate by throwing our children into the stormy waters of amorality and expecting them to swim. As Solomon has said, it is only through the guidance and teaching of moral values that we will keep our children afloat, as well as enabling them to navigate their way to safe harbor.

Originally published by Jewish World Review

In Memoriam — Rav Ephraim Oratz

proverbs-6-23How do you start to describe the one person most responsible for launching you on the path that has defined you for nearly a quarter century?

I never had any great desire to be a classroom teacher until I found myself under the tutelage of Rabbi Ephraim Oratz, whose unparalleled pedagogic genius and vast reservoir of Torah knowledge inspired me to embark upon my career as a rebbe.  Whatever I have accomplished in the field of Torah education is primarily because of him.

Rav Oratz was — if I may be permitted to use the term — the ultimate Torah-Renaissance man.  He possessed the passion of the Amshinover chassidim, the yekkishe precision of the German Jews, the academic discipline of the Lithuanian scholars, and the worldly nobility of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, all rolled up — as Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz would say — into one selfless, total servant of the Almighty.

Rav Oratz was truly of the old school, with countless stories about growing up in the post-depression years, about learning and teaching in the old American day school system, about playing stickball on the streets of New York.  He told me once how his father had to go out every Monday morning to find new employment, because his Sabbath-observance cost him his job time and time again.  More incredibly, Rav Oratz didn’t learn of this until years later; his parents kept the children in the dark so they wouldn’t feel insecure.

In our coddled generation, that kind of mesiras nefesh — self-sacrifice — is almost entirely forgotten.

Coddling was one term absent from Rav Oratz’s educational lexicon.  He understood with every fiber of his being that self-esteem is not given, it is acquired by learning discipline and discovering the joy that comes from struggle and success.  He never acknowledged good work with exuberant cries of excellent, fantastic, or well done.  Instead he responded with a silent nod, a quick smile, a short nu, nu or, on one extraordinary occasion, with not bad, not bad at all.  That was high praise indeed.

Rav Oratz would arrive exactly two minutes before each class, replace his hat with his yarmulke in one smooth, practiced motion, then look inscrutably around the room, which was usually less than half full when it was time to begin.  On one occasion, when there were only two of us present on time, he looked at me and asked, “Is something else going on this evening?”

I shrugged my shoulders.  Rav Oratz shook his head.  “Just one of those things I guess I’ll never understand,” he said.

There weren’t many things Rav Oratz didn’t understand.  In two years of classes I never heard him unable to answer a question, although he could hold his tongue indefinitely when he wanted us to come up with the answers on our own.

“Wouldn’t you have hated to have him as a rebbe?” a member of the Ohr LaGolah leadership-training program once commented — after Rav Oratz was safely out of earshot.

“Wouldn’t you love to have had him as a rebbe now?” I shot back.

There’s nothing more inspirational than witnessing a true master do something as well as it can be done.  Watching Rav Oratz teach made me want to be a teacher.  That was it.  My course in life was set, without prompting, without a sales pitch, with just enough encouragement to convince me that I could succeed if I put my heart into it.  And I wanted nothing more than to do what he could do, even if I did it only half as well as he could.

“If you aren’t devoted to chinuch,” he once said to us, “please find a different profession.  You can make more money doing almost anything else, and there’s no telling how much damage you might do if you go into teaching for the wrong reasons.”

Rav Oratz had little patience for shoddiness, whether in teaching or in life.  He had too many stories of classroom incompetence, and followed up one particularly distressing narrative by muttering, “A beheima (animal) of a rebbe.”  

He recounted the time one teenager walked into his class wearing tight jeans and his shirt half unbuttoned, his hair slicked back, and “those things” — massive air-sneakers — on his feet.  

Rav Oratz:  “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror today?”

Student (flustered):  “Yeah.  Why?”

Rav Oratz:  “Did you see tzelem Elokim (the image of God)?”

Student:  “Whad’ya mean?

He also taught me my signature phrase.  “Of course it makes sense; you just don’t understand it.”

After a few failed attempts, Rav Oratz devised a creative way to cure girls — at least partially — of their feverish note-taking, which generally took the form of compulsive stenography.  After saying over the same point five times in his class lecture, he asked one poor girl to read from her notes.

The discomfited student began reading.  After a few moments, Rav Oratz interrupted to say, “You just repeated yourself.”  Uncomprehending, the girl explained that she was just reading what she had written.

“Okay,” said Rav Oratz, “go ahead.”  The student resumed, but only for a moment.  “You just repeated yourself again,” interrupted Rav Oratz.  Again, the confused girl pleaded that she was only reading what the rebbe had taught.

It took one more volley before another girl hissed, “Ooh, you tricked us!”

images“Now we’re making progress,” Rav Oratz replied.  He never wanted to merely teach his students information.  He wanted to teach them how to learn and make them love learning so that they would never want to stop.

Then there was his distinctive way of dealing with latecomers.  When a student came in during class, Rav Oratz would stop mid-sentence and follow the offender with his eyes until he had taken his place, pause for one beat, then continue where he had left off.  Most memorable was the time a student came in only moments after he had explained this technique, allowing him to demonstrate, to (almost) everyone’s delight, and to the latecomer’s consternation.

Subtlety was all to Rav Oratz.  When high-school girls questioned the wisdom behind shemiras negiah (the rules of “hands off” between the sexes) and asked why it was such a big deal if boys and girls held hands, his answer was priceless:

“It’s not a big deal at all.  But you know it doesn’t stop at holding hands.  First he’s holding your hand; then his hand is around your arm; then it moves to your back;  then he’s stroking your hair.”

Pause for dramatic effect.

“The same way he pets his dog.”

Pause while girls squirm.

“Nice doggie.”

Pause while making petting motions in the air.

“You want to hold hands?  Go ahead.  Give him your paw.”

Every word was delivered with dry, dispassionate, clinical objectivity.

Rav Oratz did allow a shadow of emotion to creep over his face when he talked about the resistance of yeshiva administrators to fire drills.  “They all have the same rationale,” he would say.  “Torah is a shemira.  I tell them they can say that after they’ve had to shepherd a class of little children down from the third floor of a smoke-filled building.”

When my first book, Dawn to Destiny, was in pre-production, Judaica Press contacted Rav Oratz and asked him to edit it.  The publisher later told me that he was less-than-enthusiastic.  But when Rav Oratz learned that the author was a former student, he agreed immediately.

Several weeks later, I called him to discuss his critique.  He began by raising an objection to the first sentence of the introduction.  This is going to be a long phone call, I told myself.  And it was.  But the finished product came out so much the better for having gone through Rav Oratz’s trial-by-fire.

It took me 17 years to get back to Israel after completing Ohr LaGolah.  At my earliest opportunity, I went to see Rav Oratz and thank him for all he had done for me.

His response was completely in character.  “Adaraba,” he said.  Just the opposite.  

And it was especially sweet when my daughter went off to learn in Israel at Darchei Binah seminary:  there’s something indescribable about having your child learn from your rebbe.  I imagine that it’s even sweeter to teach the children of your students.

A generation comes and a generation goes; the sun also rises, and it sets.  Rav Oratz returned to the yeshiva d’rakiya last Shabbos, moving on to enjoy the rewards of a life devoted to the children of his people.  And our world has grown darker as we try to carry the torch and safeguard the light of Torah for the generations yet to come.

May his neshoma have an aliyah and his family be comforted among the mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim.