Saturday, January 30, 2016

It couldn't hurt

Rob Chimberoff, who does pagination at the Sun-Times, greets (left to right) Yakov Rosenblum, 16, Mendel Friedman, 15 and Schneur Ehven, 16, 


     Prayer is defined as ... what? Talking to God? Praising His glory? Asking the cosmos for something you really want?
     That strikes me as a very limited definition. It seldom seems to work. And I just can't wrap my head around a Supreme Being as powerful and all-knowing as the Supreme Being supposed is who is also so insecure that He needs his ass kissed constantly.  
     I would suggest that prayer could be all sorts of things.
     For instance, most Friday for the past 20 years, two or three Hasidic boys show up the Sun-Times offices to try to get me to pray. Because in their circles I am the notorious Meshumed fun Tshikago, or Apostate of Chicago, and the Lubavitch movement has vowed to win me over to their side.
     Kidding.
     The truth is there is some master list of Jewish office workers, and they go around trying to get them to put on tefillin—Yiddish fophylacteries, or prayer boxes—and say some Hebrew prayers. The tefillin are a black leather strap wound around your left arm—well, on my right, since I'm left-handed—and a small black box containing lines of Torah that sits atop your head, in satisfaction of Deuteronomy 11:18, "You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes." (Later in the passage the same words are slapped "upon the doorposts of your house," which is were mezzuzahs  come from).
     While most ultra-Orthodox sects of all religion are seriously into coercion, the Lubavtch are more gentle, low-key. They go around pushing tefillin out of the charming notion that doing so gets us all closer to the arrival of the Messiah (so in that sense, they're trying to bring about the End of the World. But in a good way). 
     And every week, Amy, the charming receptionist, sends an email telling me that the boys are here, and every Friday I can't act on it, because I'm home, or because I'm doing something else and didn't see it for hours later. I can't say I'm consumed with regret to have missed them.
    But this Friday, not only was I at my desk, but drinking coffee to beat the band. So much so that mid-morning I leaped up, briskly marched toward the front desk, and ran smack into Yakov Rosenblum, 16, Mendel Friedman, 15 and Schneur Ehven, 16, all students at Lubavitch Mesivta Chicago in Rogers Park. 
    Knowing when I was caught, dead to rights, I jovially waved them back to my office. On the walk, I told them about the only Bible story I quote with any regularity: Jonah is told by God to go to Nineveh and preach. Not wanting to, he flees to Tarkshish, or tries to, but ends up in a whale. Sometimes fate boots you toward Nineveh, so you just have to shrug and go.
    At the office, I automatically rolled up my right sleeve and took off my wristwatch.
   "You've done this before," one said. I don't think any of the boys had been there before. I tend to treat them as the same individuals, but the truth is, the teens who first came to see me are now no doubt rabbis in Montreal and Brooklyn with growing families of their own. 
    One of the boys wrapped the leather strap around my arm -- I've never shot heroin, but there is something about wrapping the extended arm that always struck me as being like a junkie tying off his arm to raise a vein.  I also put the box upon my head, and repeated the Hebrew prayers after another one of the boys, haltingly and half-remembered.
     Why do it? A number of reasons. Altruism, mostly. The lads are here and want me to, to further the philosophical notions their sect possesses. 
    "You guys get points toward a bicycle or something for me doing this," I said, my standard joke, and they denied it, as the boys have done for decades. 
     It must also freak out passersby -- I have a glass wall in the office. I like the thought of people walking by and seeing Steinberg lost in some arcane religious act with three black-hatted attendants. 
     And I do like that the Lubavitch are low-key, or at least as low-key as you can be showing up at people's offices in the middle of working day and dragooning them into your ritual. They never say I'm going to hell otherwise. They don't set off bombs. A lot of faiths could take a lesson from them. 
     But it's also a pause from the day, for me. Their reason strikes me as specious. I can't conceive of a world where the Supreme Being, throned in glory, looks up, smiling, thinking, "Neil's putting on tefillin. All riiiiight!
     But for me, the combination of the pause, the interaction with the friendly black-hatted boys, the doing of a small favor for them, the muttering of the ancient words, well, it all blended together to perk me up. Without going into detail I had been feeling particularly lousy Friday morning, one of those minor professional annoyances involved with the new book, one that 99 out of 100 writers would leap to have to go through in my place, but which just left me sour-stomached and frustrated and viewing the whole writing process, not as work I love, but as another damaging addiction.
     By the time the boys left, the problem, which had been a noxious fog surrounding me, blocking my view in every direction, was now a cloud on the horizon, large, yes, but no longer so present. And it was diminishing, and I was feeling my old self again. 
    Maybe that was unrelated to the prayer. Maybe it would have happened whether the boys showed up or not. But I'm not sure. The prayer probably didn't help. But it couldn't hurt.

32 comments:

  1. Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
    ― Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

    Bitter Scribe

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    1. One of the greatest books ever written!

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  2. The boys certainly know Rabbi Heschel: "Prayer does not save us, but it makes us worthy of being saved."

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  3. NeilSteinberg I'm not Jewish and I'm a woman. I've never been approached by a Lubavitcher. Which makes me think of another difference between these boys and other prayer solicitors. Is it that they are simply trying to convert you to pray a prayer you already know and to which you ascribe? But not convert you or anyone to their faith in general? If so, it's a whole different ballgame than other public prayer hawkers. Seems more like a mobile temple. Which sometimes, is just what we need. Call it meditation, call it solitude or abandoning the ego for a minute. It works wonders.

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    1. Jews, even Orthodox Jews, don't believe in conversion. If a non-Jew wants to convert they are supposed to discourage conversion ( twice I think it is) before assisting. What they are trying to do with Neil is help him become observant. Orthodox Jews don't talk about in terms of more or less religious. It's about whether a Jew observes the Commandments.

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  4. NeilSteinberg I'm not Jewish and I'm a woman. I've never been approached by a Lubavitcher. Which makes me think of another difference between these boys and other prayer solicitors. Is it that they are simply trying to convert you to pray a prayer you already know and to which you ascribe? But not convert you or anyone to their faith in general? If so, it's a whole different ballgame than other public prayer hawkers. Seems more like a mobile temple. Which sometimes, is just what we need. Call it meditation, call it solitude or abandoning the ego for a minute. It works wonders.

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    1. They wouldn't, your being a woman, thus you can't put on tefillin, in their view of the world. Orthodox religion of every stripe is one of the greatest forms of sexism there is, hiding, as many wrongs do, behind the fig leaf of faith.

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    2. Thanks for that. The truth needs light....

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    3. Thanks for that. The truth needs light....

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    4. Hey..I recognized Rob from the photo...sat near my mom in our shul at high holidays. Great guy. Neil..have you ever interviewed or asked strict orthodox women their view of it being sexist? Your opinion may oversimplify. I have always wondered what they thought..and have dated a couple seriously. Both would surprise you as being orthodox..and they both never ever felt sexism....we all have our own roles...just because a man does something like lane teffilin doesn't mean the woman should..or even wants to. Again...thwse women were not stuck in some centuries old time warp. You may be surprised.

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    5. Jean...theze fellows aren't interested in converting anyone to Judaism...it's not our thing. In fact it is pretty tough to convert..if done according to Orthodox laws...I often joke: why would anyone choose to be Jewish..it ain't easy (if one follows many of the laws..customs..often not fun..and I'm not even that religious). All they want to do is enable Jews to perform the mitzvah of putting on tefillin..painless..quick..and something we "should" do every morning. To me, they are doing me a favor.

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    6. I covered a mass challah bake, which was basically 500 women and me. I had trouble finding a woman with the intestinal fortitude to speak to me. I doubt they would consider themselves discriminated against, but question the value of that observation. I'm sure many women in Saudi Arabia don't feel that either. As you say, "We all have our own roles," and women there weren't meant to drive.

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    7. Agree on the sexism thing. Though most Orthodox women would disagree. And they do a good job of debating it because unlike some other Orthodox religions the education of women is highly encouraged ( often for sexist reasons including the need to be able to help educate the sons and the fact that the role of orthodox women is often to be the breadwinner so their husband can do the "more important" work of studying Torah).

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    8. My comment deleted? Or "lowtech Larry" at it again. Well, it is your blog, that's cool. One more try...as predicted, comparing Saudi women to Orthodox Jewish women. Please. But I get it, it's part of what I love about your writing... usually. You know the comparison isn't close to valid, but, yup, it is more controversial and intereting. I'll make it shorter so this isn't deleted. Thanks

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    9. I'm curious, Larry, why you think the comparison of Orthodox sexism to Saudi sexism is invalid. To me, it seems more a matter of degree. Certainly I agree that each of us has certain roles, but to have those roles prescribed or proscribed simply because of gender (rather than by, for example, ability) is sexism by definition, is it not?

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    10. I can answer for Larry. Because Saudi sexism is bad, while Orthodox sexism is part of G-d's plan, though I imagine he'll phrase that differently.

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    11. Neil, I'm sure you love it when someone puts words in your mouth. But it's ok, good try. The assumption being made is that I think there is sexism in Orthodox Jews. I'm not making that assumption. I'd also guess if there are 500 orthodox women together there might be some peer pressure involved in their decision not to speak to you, sadly. The Orthodox women I know and have spoken to (regarding Annie's comments) don't stay at home and raise kids. They have MBA's and are in corporate America, one in fact competed against me for a job (I didn't get it). They aren't slaves at home raising sons. Lots of assumptions being made.

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    12. I should probably add that my own religion, Catholicism, is certainly guilty of sexism in some areas as well. But then, most religions were founded in a time when men had most of the power and made the rules. Since then, many have evolved to differing degrees.

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    13. And I should also correct myself, certainly there is sexism among Orthodox Jews, individually, obviously. But not as part of the laws. But yup, it is interpreted that very often. Like almost everything, it's not black and white. If it were, I never would have met, dated, made friends with the orthodox women I have over the years. Too, there would not be any orthodox Jewish women working outside the home.

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    14. Larry, Of course those women do not think they are discriminated against and limited, that is because they've been brainwashed from day one. Straying from that could have dire consequences.

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  5. I laughed out loud at your comment about the black-hatted attendants. It also reminds me of Penn Jillette's theory that people who don't push their religion on you don't care about you.

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    1. In my experience, they care more about themselves.

      Bitter Scribe

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    2. I'm neither a Trump fan or overly religious but how about men and women taking some responsibility and using birth control before one gets preganant? Women let men off the hook too often. IMO, abortion should be only for rape, incest, mom's life in danger or the fetus is damaged.As for the poor, they can get free contraceptives at birth control clinics. For the rest, abortion shouldn't be an inconvenience because one either couldn't control themselves or didn't bother with contraception. By the way, I voted for Hillary.

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  6. Mrs. Steinberg seems more observant of religious ritual than Neil, and one wonders if the higher powers credit him, by association, with some of that holiness. Sort of a spousal benefit.

    I know a lot of Jewish jokes, from reading and told to me by Jewish friends, but, not being a Jew, seldom tell them. However, the comment about what God might think of the supplications directed at him brings to mind the one about an old fellow who falls into the habit of concluding his morning prayers by wishing he might win the lottery. After some years of this, the heavens open and a voice is heard saying "Give me a break Goldberg. Buy a ticket."

    On the subject of mindless ritual, John Aubrey once said about the father of Thomas Hobbes. "He was one of those ignorant Sir Johns of Queen Elizabeth's time, who could only read the prayers of the Church and the homilies; and valued not learning, as not knowing the sweetness of it."

    All that said, I do like the quote from Deuteronomy. And am grateful to learn where mezzuzah comes from.

    Tom Evans

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    1. I try to slide in a little semi-practical knowledge, from time to time.

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  7. It's interesting that when we feel the worst is when we shy away from people. This is the time we should socialize,because people can often make us feel better.

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  8. I've read three of your books (paid for two of them!), so I think it's only fair you pray a little. It's all about balance....

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  9. Some born again fundamentalists are more sexist than Catholics. If push came to shove the least sexist among religions aremainstream Protestants, like Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed Jews, One would guess few followers of Islam would not be sexist.

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  10. For some you're certainly right. For others..a bunch..that I'm friends with..or have dated...for them you are using a gigantic huge paintbrush. Not at all hat way. It's just not that simple.

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  11. Conservative jews..don't forget about them.

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  12. Those Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn give sexism a whole new meaning.

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