I’ve noticed that this blog seems to be somewhat woman-centric, which is interesting, because other than the fact that I, the author, am female, nothing here is specifically feminine. So I put out there on Facebook that I am looking for a male Orthodox Jew to interview, and a friend-of-a-friend volunteered Chaim Shalom ben Avraham – who is a very interesting person besides being male and Orthodox. Tell me what you think.
Ootob: What is your name?
CS: (I try to keep a limited presence on the internet, so I won’t give out my English name. My Hebrew name is Chaim Shalom ben Avraham.)
Ootob: Where did you grow up?
CS: I grew up in Buffalo, New York.
Ootob: How old are you?
CS: I’m 37.
Ootob: What’s your favorite food?
CS: A very difficult question, but I think my wife’s Japanese chicken is pretty fantastic!
Ootob: What are your talents/hobbies?
CS: I studied piano performance in college, and have kept it up a fair amount since then. I was largely trained in classical music, but recently started taking jazz/improvisation lessons, which I’m pretty excited about.
Ootob: Where do you live?
CS: Rochester, New York.
Ootob: How many siblings do you have and where do you fit in? Brothers/sisters? How old?
CS: I’m second in line of a total of 5 children. I have one brother and 3 sisters.
Ootob: What did your parents do for a living?
CS: Both of my parents are now retired, but they were both teachers. My father was a professor of cultural anthropology, and my mother was a high school English teacher.
Ootob: How many children do you have? How old/boys or girls? Would you like to have more?
CS: We have a total of 4 children — 3 boys and one girl.
Ootob: What do you and your wife do for a living?
CS: I’m a physician (practicing neurologist). My wife teaches art very part-time, and is a stay at home mom.
Ootob: Are you and your wife practicing religion in a similar fashion to how you grew up, or is it different? If so, how so, and how to you handle relationships with family members in this regard?
CS: Both my wife and I are converts to Orthodox Judaism. Although I was not baptized, or taken through any of the Christian rites of passage, I had a Christian upbringing. My father wanted us to grow up with a basic belief in God, but did not want our Christian upbringing to be overly dogmatic (he wanted to give us some degree of freedom to question things, including trying to find our own spiritual direction as we matured). That flexibility on my father’s part probably enabled my later investigations of Judaism.
My wife also comes from a Christian background, again not overly dogmatic, although she did have some religious Christian schooling (like myself) before high school.
We are both fortunate to have good relationships with both of our parents. Although when I was younger, and contemplating Jewish conversion, I had some fears that my parents would interpret my conversion as some sort of rejection of them personally, those fears were completely unfounded. As a matter of fact, my practice of Judaism has brought them a significant amount of happiness, particularly in the form of grandchildren who are being raised in a value system that they respect and admire.
Ootob: How old were you and your wife when you got married?
CS: I was 27, and my wife was 24.
Ootob: How did you meet and how did the dating work?
CS: Multiple people tried to set my wife and me up. Ultimately a mutual acquaintance in Brooklyn, NY set us up. We dated for about 2 and a half months before I proposed (I would not necessarily recommend such a short dating period, particularly for the newly observant–but it worked out well for us).
Ootob: Can you describe what your wedding was like?
CS: My wife was a very popular teacher at a local girls high school in Crown Heights. A large number of the students in her class showed up, as well as friends from her seminary, family, and people from the surrounding Jewish community. We were fortunate to have received significant financial support from the Jewish community in Crown Heights, largely through fundraising efforts from my wife’s students.
I was learning at a local yeshiva at that time, and so most of the guys in the yeshiva showed up, as well as friends and family. A relatively large number of young men from the surrounding community came to dance. It was a very happy, high energy wedding, largely due to all of the community support we received.
Ootob: How do you and your wife stay connected while raising a family?
CS: My wife and I have a similar sense of humor, so we find it very easy to talk to each other. Most of our extended conversations, however, are preserved for after hours — when the kids are asleep. We have frequent outings with each other, although truthfully we most often involve the children. We have from time to time been out just by ourselves, although we have not utilized babysitters as much as we should.
Ootob: How would you describe how you and your wife share work and parenting responsibilities?
CS: My wife does the bulk of the cooking and cleaning, since I spent a good deal of time outside of the house. When I am home, I oftentimes watch the kids, particularly when she needs to be out of the house, and I am very involved in doing homework with the children. I tend to assume the role of helping the children with the Hebrew homework, and occasionally the secular studies, although my wife — this year in particular — has been working closely with our daughter on her secular studies.
Ootob: What is the most important thing you want your children to know about Judaism?
CS: It is important to partner Torah study and prayer with regular acts of kindness. I would tell my children that though they are part of a larger community of people committed to observing the Torah, and share certain communal values and norms of conduct, it is also essential to develop themselves individually as people, and develop their own personal relationship with God, within the guidelines of halachah. This means developing their unique talents and abilities, with an eye towards making the world a better place in their own unique way.
Ootob: Who is your role model in Judaism and why?
CS: There is a relatively long list, so I will not try to name them all. I also admire different figures for different reasons, recognizing that their approaches sometimes significantly diverge from each other. Maimonides stands out, due to his scholarship, intellectual honesty, courage, and ability to forgive his detractors. I am attracted to some of Rebbe Nachman’s advice for developing a more personal relationship with Hashem. I admire the contemplative depth of Chabad chassidus. I respect Rav Hirsch’s sensible and balanced approach to Jewish observance. I admire Rav Kook’s innovative thinking, and kindness. I appreciate Rav Dessler’s insight into human nature.
Ootob: How has your community impacted your connection/observance of Judaism?
CS: My wife and I have lived in Brooklyn, Cleveland, and Rochester. The latter two can be described as medium and small communities respectively. My wife and I definitely gravitate toward small to medium-size communities, because social interactions seem less impersonal.
Ootob: What is your favorite mitzvah/tradition and why?
CS: I am very connected to the mitzvah of Torah study. Helping people in need is also important to me.
Ootob: Is it obvious from your external dress that your are an Orthodox Jew? Does this impact you at work?
CS: I always wear a yarmulke at work, which is the most obvious indicator. From time to time I will have patients ask me about it. It is rare for me to have a negative interaction with a person because of my yarmulke. I’ve had very few colleagues who have struck me as obviously antisemitic. Sometimes seeing that I am a religious Jew evokes positive feelings, typically from religious coworkers, or some sympathetic Jews
Ootob: Is it hard for you to follow the rules? What’s the hardest part of being an Orthodox Jew?
CS: Judaism is a challenging religion to observe, and I doubt very much that they are many people that find every aspect of Jewish observance to be easy. Because I have an erratic call schedule, it is oftentimes difficult for me to make minion. Never speaking lashon harah would be a challenge, even though I am not generally inclined towards gossip. Always remembering to say blessings after food. Davening always with kavanah is a challenge.
For me some of the biggest challenges with respect to Judaism have little to do with Jewish observance itself, and more to do with socioeconomic factors. It is expensive to live a Jewish life in America — with the bulk of the expense being taken up by day school tuition. I think there is sometimes excessive pressure to conform in large and homogeneous communities.
Ootob: What is your favorite part of being an Orthodox man?
CS: I love the fact that it is an accepted part of Jewish community living for men to get together to engage in Torah study and prayer. I find the ability to learn Torah in an organized fashion with either a study partner, or study group, to be an ennobling experience. I also find it very satisfying to educate my children in Torah.
Ootob: Any closing thoughts or remarks?
CS: I think I’ve said enough!