Category: 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?

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.

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).


Dear Loyal Readers,
It’s been a while since I’ve done a personal post, mostly because there hasn’t been much going on worth reporting. Then again I suppose you could say I haven’t blogged regularly (even by my standards) since I changed jobs in accordance with their internet policies. At any rate this last part is now moot since my position at JPMC no longer exists, i.e. eliminated, downsized, or whatever term is in fashion these days.
While the result is similar to being fired, my current circumstances are really not as severe all things considered other than looking for another job. It was a good run at JPMC – I may be applying to other positions there – and I’m looking forward to resetting priorities and approaching the next challenges and opportunities.
In the meantime, I’m brushing up computer and Rabbinic resumes and hope to use the time productively. Of course any leads would be greatly appreciated…

Christmas In Brooklyn

Like most people, there are some experiences in life I usually try to avoid. Most of the time it’s part of an aversion to some sort of discomfort, usually phusical or psychological. Then there are those aversions which are completely irrational and get their own category:
I call one of them, “Brooklyn.”
I can’t really explain why I get so unnerved in Brooklyn. It could be the multi-million dollar mansions situated in anotherwise aesthetically depressed area, or the overwhelming particular Jewisness of the area one that can only be circularly defined as “Brooklyn.”
Still, all fears must be confronted at some point so yesterday I joined my mother and grandparents on a little errand running excursion to Coney and J. The thinking was that while the rest of New York would be shut down – I can’t remember crusing down the West Side Highway that quickly in midday – Brooklyn would be running along as usual. I didn’t break out into hives or start convulsing, but there were definately some notable Brooklyn highlights:

  • I was in Eichlers and overheard a father and mother (different families) with respective children recently engaged (not to each other) were comparing notes on wedding preperations (ketuvah, “backup tenaim,” etc). In the course of their conversation, the woman complimented the man’s tie. In the spirit of holiday, the man replied, “You like the tie? It’s yours. I can get these for $5.” and proceeded to take off his tie, puts it on the counter, and gives it to the dumbfounded woman.
  • Waiting for my mother and grandmother in one of the Brooklyn dress shops, I noticed that the background music was not only sung by female, but the song was “White Christmas.” I can excuse the vocalist because the only men who would enter the store would presumably already be beyond saving. But regarding the song choice, perhaps they consider it Jewish Music after all.
  • Someone behind the counter of a pizza shop called over a teenager and asked him if he was new in town. The teen said yes and asked how he knew. The man said it was because he noticed that every time the teen got up from a table someone else came and took it, adding with a smile, “you’ve got to be more careful around here – don’t be so trusting.”
  • And finally there was this priceless exchange at the same pizza store with an obviously appreciative customer:

    “God bless Christmas”
    “Yeah, only a Yid could pull this off.”

You know, I may need to take Brooklyn off the list.
Maybe just for Christmas anyway.

How To Miss A Point

One of the things we talked about in the Devar Torah Workshop is that no matter how well you organize your thoughts and how well you deliver your message, there may be people who just won’t get it. They may be distracted, bored, or – let’s be diplomatic here – lacking the ability to comprehend.

Then of course there are those who fall into their own unique category. For one surreal example, this past Shabbat I delivered emergency fill-in devar torah for seudah shlishit, after which I was blamed for the Holocaust.

I suppose some background is in order. For various reasons due to Thanksgiving no one was slated to speak during seudah shelishit. At some point during shaharit I reminded myself that I spoke last year and figured out a way to tweak the old message and even have it tie in to Thanksgiving. Granted, it was not one of my best efforts, but I thought at least it was passable.1

When I went to sit down down, and older gentleman and prominent figure in the shul come over with the obligatory “yasher koach” and asked if I attended the shul’s annual Kristalnacht event. I hadn’t. The gentleman then ranted that no young people came because we have no interest and don’t care about the Holocaust, and had we cared more back then we could have prevented it.

For the moment, let us ignore the specific implication that our current apathy towards shul events precipitated the most horrific genocide in our people’s history. Rather, I simply intended to demonstrate that as admirable of a goal it is for a speaker to connect with the audience, there are times when you should just let it go.

1. Hopefully I will get a chance to write it up at some point.

Great Moments In Package Design

A few weeks back I bought a generic pair of scissors from a downtown Duane Reade. Of the many ways in which a pair of scissors could be packaged, these in particular were attached to a cardboard backing with a metal washer fastening a loop around one of the handles. Thus after tearing off the backing, the loop was still firmly attached like so:

Now if only I had some utensil, device, or mechanism which could sever this superfluous and intrusive connection.
Oh wait….

Rating The Rides

In light of the recent subway outage I actually decided to fill the MTA’s rider report cards for the trains I take most frequently. Overall I’m not terribly impressed with the A’s sporadic service especially during off hours, but I’ve generally found the 2-3 and 4-5-6 to be pretty efficient.
A better question would be if the MTA actually takes these things seriously since there is little incentive to improve. In free market economies competitions drives innovation and a greater concern for customer service as dissatisfied consumers would simply take their business elsewhere. But for many New Yorkers, the MTA is the only realistic option for transportation. Cars are too expensive with purchasing, ownership, insurance, and parking. Cabs and car services are not only expensive but their service is unpredictable depending on the neighborhood. Bicycles are a cheaper alternative, but are more dangerous, require physical stamina, and are impractical for transporting packages. We also cannot ignore the elderly population, many of whom are physically unable to drive or bike or are on fixed incomes and could not afford the other alternatives. Because of people’s dependence on public transit, the MTA could hike fares with only political opposition as opposed to facing a consumer revolt.
Furthermore, I’m skeptical how much the MTA can improve its service. Aside from management being politically motivated, the reliance on union labor and its regulations ensures that even mediocre (or incompetent) employees will be overpaid for as long as possible (not to mention pension obligations).
My guess is that just like every other year the NYPost and Daily News will write a few stories on the pluses and minuses of each line, there will be editorials bemoaning the negatives and life will go on as usual. Then again New Yorkers are never shy about sharing their opinions – usually unsolicited – so go ahead and let them know what you think.
Bonus: Try filling one out in Hebrew or Yiddish.

Speaking on the UWS

This Shabbat I will be speaking once again at Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim on the Upper West Side. The topic will be “The Seven Stages of Consolation” – the first of which I covered regarding Nachamu but will be expanding the theme through more of the shiva dinehemta. True, it’s not quite as irreverent as “Existential Teshuva And The Incredible Hulk,” but it should be no less interesting.
Davening times permitting, it’s called for 11:15 AM at 241 West 72nd Street, 2nd Floor.

A Long Strange Trip

“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny.” Aldous Huxley – A Brave New World p. 16

Like most New Yorkers, I’ve had what could best be described as The Commute From Hell. Thanks to a tornado assisted torrential rain it took me about 5 hours to get from 184th and Bennett to 4 New York Plaza. Normally this is a simple matter of taking the A-Train to Broadway Nassau/Fulton and then the 4/5 to Bowling Green and it takes about 45-50 minutes.
Today’s commute reads more like like one of Billy’s adventures in
Family Circus:

  1. A-Train from 181st stop gets stuck underground for 30-45 minutes, finally reaching 145.
  2. I head topside at 145 to see how the buses are running. After some waiting there I head back down into the subway where the train from which I had disembarked is still parked.
  3. A-Train goes local until 110 or so. I get fed up and walk a few avenues to the 1 line
  4. The 1 not faring much better, I walk to 96th street to hedge bets with the 2/3.
  5. Turns out that line is messed up too, so I take a crosstown bus to try the east side.
  6. Pick up the 6 at 96th and Lex.
  7. Due to the flooding at 59th street, the 6 stops at 68th street prompting a transfer to the N line.
  8. From the N I transfer one more time to pick up the R.
  9. R goes to Whitehall Station which is a block or so from the office

Keeping in mind that all this included numerous delays, slow running trains, packed corners, and hot muggy weather. Total time: just under 5 hours.
Still a few good things came out of it. For one, between both commutes I started and finished Aldous Huxley’s dystopian tale A Brave New World. And keeping a positive attitude during this trek, I did get to meet a whole slew of interesting people whom I’d otherwise have ignored from bankers, lawyers, to a Hofstra PhD student. As a whole people seemed exasperated, but some in better spirits than others. But while I was imagining a transit strike under Bloomber’s theoretical congestion pricing scheme, I was also privy to some of my fellow commuters erudite discourses of civil engineering and political theory, featuring such profundities as “these guys are all morons” and “this is f—ing bulls—t” (an apparent consensus).
O brave new world that has such people in it, indeed.