Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Express And Be Cured

There's something beautiful about vulnerability. At the same time, though, there's something utterly terrifying about it. I spent years fearing commitment to any and everything. Such a fear seems to have been the natural product of spending the key developmental years of my upbringing in continuous disappointment due to my entrusting others with my emotions. I learned, painfully and slowly, a universal truth: Some people will deeply hurt you.

For me, it was my mother. She and I have a past that I don't feel needs to be thoroughly picked apart. Suffice it to say that we no longer have a relationship. Part of the reason why things have come to such a dramatically sour state is because, as a young boy, I wore my heart on my sleeve, only to have it time and again broken by her consistent absence and self-absorption.

I have vivid memories of standing alongside my classmates during school productions. Though we were uniform in dress and our choreography dictated synchronized movement, it was quite clear to me that I wasn't the slightest bit similar to my peers. They were performing to the pleasure of their parents. I watched as they scanned the audience, and then envied the bright look that came across their faces the moment they found their loved ones.

Meanwhile, I stood atop the stage, gazing out into a sea of relatively strange faces. My mother was seldom in attendance, thus giving me nobody to perform for. It was ironic - our performances garnered high attendance, yet I couldn't help but feel alone.

For years, I felt the aftereffects of being mistreated and deserted. I developed this idea of emotional expression as one in which any display of vulnerability was the equivalent of displaying weakness. Therefore, I snatched my heart from my sleeve and hid it from those around me. What ensued was a cycle of anger and misery.

My emotional expression became one dimensional; that emotion being catharsis. The pain I felt welling up inside of me manifested itself in the form of fits of rage, launched objects across my bedroom, and physical outbursts that stemmed from constant, inexplicable frustration. The scars that were left were waiting to be healed, but my ill-conceived understanding of emotional expression inhibited my dealing with my past in a healthy manner.

Eventually, though, I grew tired of being angry. I grew tired of being miserable. Such emotions don't allow much flexibility when it comes to enjoying life. When I made the conscious decision to eliminate the demons of my past once and for all, I found that I simply didn't know how. To express my pain would go against everything I'd come to believe. To show that I felt would, I thought, denote weakness.

How foolish I was. With the help of several very special people, I was able to understand that emotional expression cannot be healthy unless one is willing to be vulnerable and open. It wasn't until I released my painful past that I could begin to move on. Such a practice of open expression was, initially, a source of discomfort. But as time wore on, I began to see the fruits of what to me was my labor. The tension and frustration began to erode. I found a new, more emotionally in-touch side of myself.

People often ridicule me for being so open. I'm generally patient with those who have the audacity to make such jabs. They don't understand that this, what I do here on my blog, is instrumental in my recovery process. We all have scars and dark pasts and tragic stories to share, and I firmly believe that each of us would benefit from actually sharing. There is no shame in being emotionally expressive and true to your convictions. If you aren't comfortable enough with your past to share it with others, then you may find yourself anchored there, unable to move on and make the world your own.

I have much left to do in my journey of emotional recovery. I've merely begun the process of picking up the pieces of my once broken spirit, and I feel completion is distant. What I've learned throughout this perpetual trial is that you should never stop reflecting and introspecting. The more you evaluate yourself, the likelier you are to appropriately detect and assess your flaws, and subsequently resolve those issues. I take each day as it comes - whether that entails calming myself down when I begin to feel frustrated, or reassuring myself when my confidence wanes. I feel that such an approach is not only nice in theory - it's effective.

So, I urge you not to fear when it comes to being emotionally expressive. Vulnerability is often dangerous. My mother has confirmed that people are, inevitably, going to hurt you. But it's important to take that pain, express it, heal it, and find the strength to re-open yourself to others.

I've taken my heart out and again placed it confidently on my sleeve. I cannot predict what pain is awaiting me, but I can say that I'll never let it bring me to, as it once did, lose my faith in humanity. I'll never let someone else make me miserable. I refuse to repress my emotions, and I urge you all to pop your bottles and let it all out.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Why We Should Care

Elazar, Gush Etzion

It was my first morning in Israel this past summer. Being jet-lagged, I awoke just before the sun rose over the Hills of Judea. Though I'm not particularly religious, I decided to step outside into my brother's backyard to say Shacharit, the morning prayer. As I began to wrap my tefillin, chills permeated throughout my body. The wind brushed my skin as if it embodied a message. Before I donned the shel rosh, I gazed at the clouds that were moving quickly overhead. In that moment, I felt more connected to the Land of Israel, the ancestral homeland of my forefathers, and the eternal homeland of my descendants, in an unprecedented way.

God was there. He was just above me. His presence had manifested itself in the form of a guardian cloud. He was making His rounds, ensuring the safety of his coveted people, just before they were expected to awake. For the first time in my life, the abstract took form. I had spent much of my adolescent years searching for God, and in a moment of simplicity, yet overwhelming emotion, I found Him.

The Old City, Jerusalem

As the sun fell and Shabbat was about to begin, my friend and I hastily made our way toward the gates of The Old City. When we neared the entrance, it became increasingly difficult to maneuver through the large flood of people who were similarly eager to make it to services on time. Finally, we emerged at the steps overlooking the Wailing Wall, the Kotel. Awestruck, I surveyed the surrounding area, and estimated that at least a few thousand people would be joining us for afternoon prayers. After my friend and I parted ways, I made my way into the crowd on the men's side of the holy site. 

In that relatively minuscule area, I found myself surrounded by each conceivable faction of global Jewry. It appeared to me that they, too, felt God's presence in the air, and were willing to disregard the religious differences that distinguished them for the sake of collective prayer. And so began my understanding of the unifying nature of the Land of Israel.

Gush Etzion, The West Bank

Three Yeshiva students, one with dual US-Israeli citizenship, are kidnapped near my brother's home, the place where I first felt God's presence in my life. Suddenly, the unity that I so strongly felt in the summer of 2013 is broken. Suddenly, a piece of Am Yisrael is missing. 

Why We Should Care

Why should we, detached American Jews, care so strongly for the three adolescents who were tragically abducted in the West Bank this past week? Why should we pray for their safe return home? 

Because those three Jewish teenagers are us. 

Our bond to them is as inseparable as our bond to our parents. We were born into this covenant, into this religion in which a piece of ourselves is embedded in our fellow Jews. There is no shaking such an eternal bond. There is no elasticity. It is absolute, beautiful, and what distinguishes this religion from all others. Our family members are missing, and it's in our best interest to have them returned home safely. 

Just as I leisurely strolled through the Hills of Judea, relishing my time spent in the presence of God, they sought to enjoy a similar experience. Unfortunately, we are dealing with a portion of the Palestinian population that seeks the utter and absolute annihilation of the State of Israel and the Jews that inhabit it. With each terror attack perpetrated by Hamas, they are slowly severing the tie that bonds global Jewry together. They are taking and destroying pieces of the whole of Am Yisrael

Such acts should not, cannot, and will not be tolerated by the Israeli population, and it's my hope that such sentiments are shared by the rest of global Jewry. It is our duty to be concerned for our brothers. It is our duty to call out to the God who has been with us throughout the tumultuous 3000 years of our miraculous existence. We must pray and plead for the safe return of these three boys because they're far more than "just" three boys. 

They're us. 

Israel is in a state of mourning. Thousands gather at the Kotel each night to give the name "The Wailing Wall" a whole new meaning. Secular or religious, they cry out for God's help because they understand that the Nation of Israel is nothing without each member. They are unified by God's explicit presence, and such a feeling of unity drives them to despair until their fellow Israelis are returned home to their families. 

We don't have the luxury of feeling God's presence in the same manner, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't cry louder or work harder to gain His attention. I haven't been praying enough. I could cry louder. I could plead in a more crafty, persistent way. And I will begin to do just that. It's the least I can do to keep my people fully intact. I hope you do the same. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

A New Approach

I think it's time to address an issue that has taken contemporary Western culture by storm. Perhaps it's an uncomfortable topic, or perhaps you simply don't care to accept the fact that it's an issue, but I nevertheless feel it deserves in-depth analysis and proposed solutions. This issue has slowly become one of the most prominent in the world, and it has embedded itself so deeply into the collective psyche of the male gender that shaking its influence seems to be a daunting, if not impossible, task.

It's time we talk about the objectification of women.

It's the norm to identify a woman by her physical attributes as opposed to the content of her character. When a name is dropped in a conversation, impulse motivates man to give his opinion on the way she looks, not on her sense of humor, intelligence, or uniqueness. When a woman walks by in a tight skirt, impulse motivates man to track her as though she is a lion's prey, and ultimately he disregards the fact that she is a human being. When confronted and challenged for acting in such an animalistic manner, impulse motivates man to shift the blame, which most often results in the absurd claim that the victim of those unwanted gazes provoked such actions.

I use the word "impulse" for a reason. It's not that we, the male gender, want to objectify women in such an insensitive way. It's that we have been raised in a culture that allows, if not encourages, such twisted objectification. Sex is idealized and endlessly present in the mainstream of American culture, and it's therefore no wonder as to why we can't help but think about it. We've been conditioned to look first and listen second. Understand this, though: I am in no way justifying these immoral impulses; I am merely speculating as to why they're so prevalent.

Furthermore, many of us have never been taught differently. We've never been questioned for objectifying, and we've never been instructed to do otherwise. That's where the current generation comes in. It's our duty to change the tide in this losing battle. Though, again, impulses are incredibly difficult to control, they are not entirely impossible to change.

We have the power to give forethought before we objectify. We have the power to make a concerted effort to analyze, converse with, and explore the depths of the women we come across. Our only option is not objectification.

I can proudly say that I am a sane, reflective man. Therefore, I have it in me to approach my perception of the opposite gender in a different, far more humane way. I put these thoughts in writing as I prepare to embark on my personal journey toward gender equality in both the physical and conceptual worlds. I urge those reading to join me in this difficult battle, as I'm sure that our changed perceptions will further inspire the generation that follows us.

It's time that we saw other humans for who they are inside, as opposed to what they have to offer on the outside. Join me in this journey toward sensitivity and understanding. Let's change the way we think, and hope that such actions will lead others to do the same.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Grand Farewell

I was tired.
I was frustrated with who I was.
I was under the pressure of living in my brothers’ shadows.
I was hurt from being broken inside and failing to find the voice to seek help.
Unsatisfied with living in this little, isolated bubble.
Sick of being angry.
While struggling to develop in a broken home, I felt as though the world was playing some cruel, intricate joke on me, as though God was just some abstract concept, perhaps the product of wishful thinking, and as though I didn’t belong because I struggled with Shabbat and Kashrut.
I felt the world toppling down on me, and it pushed me to a breaking point - to where I had to take a deep breath and just stop.

And reflect.
And evaluate.
And change.

Of all of the things I’ve learned throughout this period of introspection, there is one lesson that has emerged as most significant. I’ve learned to be myself. My unapologetic, unadulterated, uncensored self.

The voice that once drowned in suffering has emerged to fight social injustice. The shadow of my siblings has vanished, as a new light has been cast over a life of my own. I no longer feel like an outcast, as I’ve learned to block out the judgements. And the bubble that once made me feel trapped has been popped by my irrepressible desire to find more in life.

And, much to my surprise, I’ve found a vast world of diversity and refreshing opportunities. I’ve found a city with Jews of different denominations - Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative. I’ve found youth of different religions - Jews, Muslims, and Christians. I’ve found that life is comprised of antitheses - jubilation and depression, normality and eccentricity.

I’ve found reality.

I’ve become who I am - an open minded person, an inquisitive Jew, a controversial voice, and a proud man - despite the fact that some of my beliefs conflict with the values of this community.

I often find myself wondering how I grew to be so different. And it wasn’t until recently that I found my answer.

This school, the place I’ve given my life to for the past 13 years, has played the most integral role in assisting me in becoming the man I am today. This school has shown me the value of embracing the differences that make me unique. A place where people like Rabbi Gil Perl see value in being explorative, in being controversial, in embarking on intellectual pursuits. Where people like Rabbi Uriel Lubetski are always accessible, and find the time to address issues, thoughts, and even the silliest of disagreements. Where people like Mrs. Rochelle Kutliroff refuse to accept social injustice and utter ignorance, and hold an unwavering sense of Jewish pride. Where people like Mrs. Melissa Perl are willing to help those broken students in need of guidance, and do so without passing judgements. Where people like Dr. Whitney Kennon are willing to drop the teacher persona and become a friend, doling out advice when necessary. Where people like Coach James Nokes give me the positive encouragement I need to have a healthy outlook on life. Where people like Mrs. Abby Johnson have shown me that it’s okay to interpret life differently from the majority, and that to do so should be cause for pride, not embarrassment. Where people like Mr. Dana Vaughn care to stop, even for a moment, to discuss some of life’s greatest mysteries, despite the fact that some topics may push the boundaries of the Orthodox day school status quo. Where people like Rabbi Noam Stein relate to some students in whom they see a piece of themselves, and are eager to assist them in finding who they are. Where people like Mr. Daniel Wallace, Rabbi Yonason Gersten, Mrs. Talya Tsuna, and all of the other teachers who have come and gone throughout the years express genuine interest in the wellbeing of the students that they’re tasked with educating. Because people here care - have always cared - and will always care.

We were asked to write about how we’ve grown throughout our years at the Margolin Hebrew Academy. Instead, I discovered how the Margolin Hebrew Academy has raised me.

Despite the hardships and despite the differences, I have a special place in my heart for this school and this community. I leave here a changed man, aware of who I want to become, and well aware of who I don’t want to be.

With love, appreciation, hope, and faith, I leave you now with one parting wish: Fight to preserve the unique character of this school, and look hard enough to see the value in it being open to varying ideas. It has shown me that being different is okay, and that’s something I’ll take with me עד מאה ועשרים.