Category Archives: Personal

My so-called life.

Oh, The Places I’ve Been

My passport is expiring in a couple of months and to be on the safe side in case of emergency I’m renewing shortly. When I was younger I used to admire each stamp in the book as a badge of honor, a symbol that I’ve “been there” and “done that” and the official seal was more meaningful than key chains or cheap t-shirts. Today I’m looking over all the stamps in the past 10 years and remembering where I was not just in terms of geography but even existentially. Who was I? Why did I go to these places? Who was I with at the time? are all questions which keep rushing back, filling my head with pictures as if I’m scrolling through Picasa.

So more for my own personal record than anything else, here’s a summary of my last 10 years of international travel.

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Posted in Personal.

Lag Ba’Yuter

Thoughts and Ruminations on Turning 33

For my annual birthday post it’s hard for me not to look back to the previous year especially in accounting for a whole slew of personal issues. Far from being a “year of the heart” as I had hoped, at times I look back on 32 as being a “lost year”, at least emotionally. Perhaps I’m still feeling the effects of the breakup or the regular stressors of being a rabbi, or just good old fashioned insecurity.

Typically this isn’t the way one wants to feel on one’s birthday, but I’d like to suggest that there is an important lesson – at least for myself – in turning 33.
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Posted in Personal. Tagged with , .

The YUTOPIA Sermon Citation Challenge

Anyone who has heard my sermons knows that I like spicing up my talks with various non-religious references from popular and obscure culture. Perhaps my best/worst line was the following analogy: “The Jewish community is like Soylent Green – it’s made of people.”
I didn’t say they were always funny, but they do make sense in context.
Sometimes people get the references, other times they don’t, but I’ve taken the attitude that I’m just going to drop what I can and let people pick up what they may.
So I’d like to try something new as a challenge. This week I’ll actually take requests – you tell me what references to make (the general the better), and I’ll try working it into a coherent sermon.
In other words, hit me with your best shot, and I’ll hit you with my best peshat:

Posted in Personal, Shtick.

Year Of The Heart

As part of a New Year’s intellectual cleaning, I came across this post which I had intended to post on my birthday. This was actually the first year I didn’t post anything since I started YUTOPIA nearly 6 years ago. As for many people, past year has not been the easiest for me on multiple personal levels. While I will not elaborate on most here, the year is ending with me coming out of a long relationship and reentering the tumultuous waters of Jewish dating. This recent emotional adjustment, though unpleasant, has been a motivating factor for reevaluating and revising the thrust of the overdue post below.

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Posted in Personal.

Charitable Advice

Dear Loyal Readers,
I recently decided to cash out my credit card points from my American Express card to move. In my program each point is worth 1/2 a cent. As you could imagine most of the items in their store are “overpriced” at that ratio, but through their “Giving Express” program, AmEx allows for donating points at a rate of 1 cent per point to any charity in the GuideStar database.
I currently have 8,000 points left which translates into one $50 donation and three $10 donations.1 The question is, where should it go?

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Posted in Personal.

Back In The Game

Dear Loyal Readers,
Over the past few weeks I’ve hinted at some more changes going on in my life and for the usual reasons of busyness I haven’t gotten around to posting. The big news: I accepted the position of Rabbi at The Stanton St. Shul1 in New York’s Lower East Side and even had my first Shabbat last week.
As you might expect, it’s a big change for me being my first rabbinic position – especially on top of all the craziness in my life over the past few months.2 Still, I’m very excited to be taking on this new challenge and hopefully work on myself in the process.
In terms of blogging, I’m going to have to be even more careful with what I say up here. Obviously some things will have to be “off limits,” but I on the other hand since I’ll be doing more teaching I should be able to post more Torah as derashot or some shiurim.
I’m still looking for apartments on the LES, but thankfully I’m getting help from the community and the great people at LoHo Realty, so for the time being I’ve been commuting into the city.
So that’s the scoop. If anyone out there is interested in the community or wants to come by for a visit, please let me know!

1. The website could use some work, but I hope to add my expertise in that area as well.
2. Plus since it’s technically a part-time position I’m currently taking classes in Revel, possibly en route to a PhD in Talmud but that part is still tentative.

Posted in Personal.

In My Prime

What would you do if you were stuck in one place
and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered? — Groundhog Day

It’s that time of year again for the annual birthday introspection. Last year I turned 30, which led to my completely fabricated “Big Round Number” theory. This year I turn 31, which as a friend pointed out to me, means that I’m “in my prime” in the mathematical sense.
As I hope everyone knows by now, a prime number is “a natural number which has exactly two distinct natural number divisors: 1 and itself.” There’s something pure about a prime number, a number distinct such that it stands alone. It’s identity is not determined by other numbers, but rather a prime number exists only in relationship to itself and the core identity of 1.
I started ruminating about ideas of identity: what makes us who we are, and how we define ourselves etc. Ironically, today’s summer addition to was the 1993 classic Groundhog Day which deals with identity defined by knowledge and actions, such as the identities we form through sheer mindless repetition and predictability.
This past year for me was anything but predictable. It was only March when I was still working at a cushy stable job at JPMorgan Chase with a nice apartment and simple routine. Since then I got laid off, wrote three master’s theses before passing, found out I needed to move, and we’re not even close to being done with more big changes coming (details to follow shortly). In general, there does seem to be a sense for me this year of forcing myself to break some patterns, accepting new challenges, and being in a position where I’m forced to be more independent and proactive in determining how the next year will progress.
For now I will simply thank everyone for the multitude of warm birthday wishes1 and I look forward to sharing what promises to be an exciting year with everyone.

1. Thank you Facebook

Posted in Personal.


Well, one bit of good news since the last post is that my recent thesis draft passed as is! I still have some minor changes to make like some silly grammar, spelling, or syntax things,1 but even so, the professors found it passable “and quite interesting.”

Once I get those bugs out of the way I’ll consider either posting it or a thoroughly abridged summary.
If you’re new to YUTOPIA, I first blogged about this thesis way back on February 25th, 2004, and a few more times since. After a while I just stopped talking about it other to say it was “in progress” and generally let it get in the way of pursuing so many things in life mostly out of guilt and insecurity.

For so long I was afraid to write anything, mostly due to self-imposed pressure of writing a paper solely as an admissions ticket to a PhD program. For most of the time I was working on a topic I didn’t choose, didn’t really understand, and constantly felt too unqualified and too insecure to write anything. Even if I’d write three sentences, I’d delete two for not being good enough;I knew I could write better and couldn’t deal with not producing at the level I thought I ought to have been able. I even used to get panic attacks just by loading up the draft in Word.

There were several factors why things worked this time including:

  1. Having a topic I understood
  2. Having clear parameters for a research model
  3. Growing up a whole lot over the past few years
  4. Having an absolute drop-dead deadline
  5. Getting laid off at an opportune time
  6. Getting over the existential need to get a PhD immediately and living without degrees
  7. Dealing with bigger problems, which helps put things in perspective
  8. In fact I think it’s because at this point nothing was else riding on finishing the paper freed me up to view it as just another independent task

I may think of more later – right now I’m writing on instinct. I definitely feel that I’ve changed a bit since I’ve started, daresay even matured. There’s also an odd sense of closure. Back in 2003 or so the biggest advocate for me going to Chicago was my then-girlfriend, who got married within a day of me submitting my draft.2 I don’t know exactly what that means, but I think it’s interesting enough to mention.

Minimally there’s a lesson here in either tenacity or stupidity. I’ve had several people – including a therapist – tell me to quit and move on, and perhaps if I were a better economist I’d have just dealt with the sunk costs. I think part of it was the counter-insecurity of admitting failure3 or that deep down I also knew that I do in fact know how to write.

At any rate, having a masters the University of Chicago it may or may not open doors in the future, but right now I don’t feel that it has to. That lesson alone is probably worth more than the paper itself.4
I would also be remiss if I didn’t thank my family and friends who have provided encouragement or even just put up with me struggling with this over the past few years. Also I must also thank the new professors for their constructive guidance and feedback. In fact I received more productive comments from them in the past few months than I’ve gotten in the previous four years combined.

1. Huge shocker I know.
2. Mazal Tov!!!!
3. Think something like that Simpsons episode where all of Mr. Burns’ illnesses cancel each other out.
4. Who knew you could learn something while getting an education?

Posted in Personal.

Take Five

Many months ago, I was passing though the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle and saw that not only was there something called “Jazz at Lincoln Center” but that Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis were playing in one concert. Despite my eclectic taste in music I’ve never been much of a Jazz person, but even I’ve heard of and appreciate Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis as two of the living legends of Jazz. You’ve probably heard of Dave Brubeck’s most well-known work Take Five. I barely missed hearing Dave Brubeck a few years ago in Seattle and I jumped at the opportunity to hear him in NY.

Dave Brubeck first stepped to the microphone to make a small correction in the program. Instead of being 83 as listed, he was actually 87 and joked, “how time doesn’t fly.” Later he displayed some more of his humor describing how he wrote the song “London Sharps, London Flats” and dedicated it to his manager after a particularly difficult European tour:

You’ll notice how my right hand goes up the keyboard on the sharps and my left one goes down on the flats.
It sounds terrible.
On purpose.

Of course it didn’t sound that bad. Actually I hope I can play the piano that well when I’m 87.
Ramsey Lewis may not be as familiar, but is well known for jazz arrangements of other songs. Perhaps the most recognizable piece being a cover of Dobie Gray’sThe In Crowd,” but he also included a jazz cover of the Beatles’ In My Life.
While Dave Brubeck’s pieces played with chord structures and time signatures Ramsey Lewis’ music more more rhythmic incorporating jazz, blues, gospel, and even a calypso riff.
Anyway, with everything else that’s been going on this week, the timing (so to speak) couldn’t have been better.

Posted in Culture, Personal.

Hashgacha Peratit On Broadway

Identifying divine providence or hashgacha, if we’re being honest, is a tricky endeavor. Virtually any event can be attributed to free will just as easily as it can be to divine intervention, and I covered some of these views in one of my shiurim. Not only is our attitude towards events subjective, but even if we assume a “divine plan” it could take many years for this plan to unfold. I once gave a derasha pointing out that even Yosef Hatzaddik was relatively shortsighted in his view of hashgacha. As Yosef assuages his brother’s fears he tells them, “you intended for bad, but God intended for good; to have such a day to sustain a large nation” (Bereishit 50:20). As we know the descent into Egypt plays a much larger role in the Jewish story beyond Yosef’s limited perception. Furthermore, we recently read about the hidden divine role in Megillat Esther, the narrative of which which took place over the course of several years.
On the other hand, observing apparent instances of hashgacha immediately can have a profound effect on our outlook. Case in point, earlier today I had an appointment at 5:00 PM on the Upper West Side. On a normal Wednesday I would need to rush out of the downtown office, and depending on how well the 1 and 2/3 trains synch up, barely make it in time. But today, having more time on my hands than usual, I decided to head down earlier than usual and read outside on one of the benches in the middle of the pedestrian islands on Broadway. As I sat down to open the book1 I noticed an elderly woman physically struggling with a younger person who seemed to be trying to help the older one. The exasperated younger woman explained that elder one had a history of dementia and tried to cross the street against the light to get away from her and asked for help in trying to get her to sit down on the bench.
Initially I just tried to diffuse the situation by talking to the elder woman, and eventually did get her to sit down though she was still very distraught. But as I was sorting out things with her aide, she said three very familiar words: “ata medaber ivrit?” As it turns out she was Israeli, initially from Tel Aviv, and a whole lot more lucid when conversing in Hebrew. Without getting into the details I spoke to her in Hebrew, calmed her down, and despite her claims of being completely fine, convinced her to go with the medics to Mt. Sinai hospital.2
While I have no idea what would have happened if I hadn’t been there, I do realize that had I not been laid off I wouldn’t have been there to help both her and her aide.
And the great thing is that this story of hashgacha is just beginning.

1. In an amusing irony, the book I was reading was The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.
2. She wanted me to come with her, and I might have if I didn’t have the appointment (which I made with one minute to spare…again).

Posted in Personal.