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!
This was great! I especially liked it as I grew up in Rochester (my parents and brother/SIL still live there) and I have lived in Cleveland.
I love his synopsis of what he wants his children to know! I think it is a wonderful and balanced statement, one I may quote in the future. (And I have the same personal connection as Sidra to both Rochester and Cleveland, so I am trying hard to respect his anonymity and not start guessing at who it is.) Rochesterians are the best!!
I was happy to read that you have a good relationship with your family, but I'm curious about the practicalities. How do you navigate the (difficult, I imagine) question of not offending your family while staying true to your religion? Eating at their house when visiting etc., or visiting for Xmas (not because of religious aspects, but because it's a family gathering), or not watching TV on Saturday while you're visiting etc. I don't insinuate that it's a source of conflict, but I imagine that it must have taken a bit of adjusting for both sides and I'm curious how you've dealt with it.
Good question. Our situation is relatively amicable, and we have found a fairly workable routine, which wouldn't necessarily be transferable to other families.
Regarding Xmas, I'm usually on call that week. As a medical department we are all expected at the beginning of the year to be prepared to take a holiday shift. Since I always request off on Thanksgiving (a prime time when my family and I are able to travel back to Cleveland and visit my wife's mother), I typically am on Christmas. Gift giving usually occurs at Thanksgiving time, and that's typically before my in laws are even seriously thinking about breaking out the Christmas tree. So usually our being unavailable on Christmas doesn't involve any discussions of theological disagreements. Neither sets of parents are particularly hard line Christian either, so that helps. It's possible that if I worked a different job there would be greater awkwardness, but everybody seems to accept the "I'm on call" reason.
My mother in law periodically will say "I wish I could cook for you guys," but is not heavy handed about it, nor does she try to entice the kids to eat nonkosher food. It probably helps that my wife started keeping kosher well before she met me, so there is no perception on the part of my mother in law that I somehow was the source of her daughter keeping kosher, or practicing Judaism generally. Both of our mothers, of course, could easily help out with cooking when they visit us, but my wife is loathe to put either of them "to work" on our behalf.
My parents frequently come over for dinner at our house (they live an hour away). Though my mother cooked for me plenty growing up, it has not been a huge deal for her. My wife's a great cook, which helps a great deal. Though I won't go into detail, my parents have some personal stressors such that our playing host to them, as well as the opportunity to see the grand-kids, is a welcome breath of fresh air.
When visiting either sets of in laws, we often will bring cooking equipment–typically in the form of a portable gas grill, although we sometimes purchase cooked food in Cleveland. For Thanksgiving, my wife prepares food in advance, and we double wrap, etc, to heat up. Fortunately the kids do not seem to demand eating from any non-kosher food that they see, but we definitely have to provide the younger kids, especially, with an attractive alternative to any nonkosher cooked food my in laws might be eating.
When we visit, we are usually there all week, but have taken to sleeping over/visiting friends in Cleveland for Shabbos. That seems to be an acceptable arrangement, probably at least in part because my in laws view it as catching up with friends we don't get to see often.
Thank you Sholom for taking the time to reply!
I was also wondering: both you and your wife converted, but if I gather well you converted separately and met when you were both already Jews. Is it an "accident", or do converts tend to be redt to other converts? Will shadchanim try to match a convert with a convert, a ba'al teshuva with a ba'alat teshuva, a FFB with a FFB etc?
I think it depends on the shadchan. My impression is that those who did not grow up orthodox will have a tendency to be set up with each other, whether they are ba'alei teshuva or converts, and the FFB will tend to be set up with each other, although this is by no means a hard and fast rule, and there are plenty of exceptions. I also suspect that the degree to which this type of paring occurs may vary with the particular community, family of the "FFB" person, as well as how long the particular BT or convert has been observant.
I wasn't looking for a convert in particular, and had been set up briefly with a BT, a girl who was converted from very young (essentially grew up orthodox), and one who grew up orthodox, before meeting my wife.
Not a direct question to CS, but I wonder about the "developing unique abilities" idea with children (and presumably oneself). Do we really as individuals have UNIQUE abilities? Or abilities that are like some other people's (but not others). I may be a great soprano, or have a way with wounded animals, but it's not unique to me, there are others with similar talents. What about instead just trying to "develop your abilities", is there a difference, and is it a Jewish difference?
Another question about the urging to develop abilities: Ruchi has said that her kids don't do tons of activities because of big-family constraints. But what if a kid did show amazing flute talent, or were a great poet? Is it incumbent on the family to support that "to the best of the child's abilities", which could be pretty demanding and expensive? I think I asked this before but it does seem to me that developing talents to their maximum might conflict ultimately with Jewish observance.
Then again, CS is a neurologist and an OJ, both very demanding and time-consuming.
I also admit to a personal stake here: one kid seems incredibly musical, I urge him to do piano or any instrument, he refuses (and I refuse to allow drums). Is it my job to keep urging? To find another instrument? To accept drums?
I don't interpret "unique abilities" quite the same way as you do, SBW. To me it is more about each person finding their own strengths, personality, sense of humor, mode of communication, rather than a particular outstanding talent. And so yes, I think each person is unique. Even identical twins aren't interchangeable to the people who know them and love them.
To me what is so wonderful about Chaim Sholom's statement is that there is frequently an assumption that being an Ortho Jew involves checking your individuality at the door. This isn't true, and I think it is important that parents encourage our children to be comfortable with their unique natures, and finding their own paths within this shared and defined direction.
As to whether developing specific talents conflicts with Jewish observance, it depends on the particular talent and how you define reaching the top. Being a concert pianist? Not easy, but possible. Being a pop singer? Quite possible if you are male, possible if you are female and can accept the restriction of not performing live in front of men. An actress? Possible. A porn actress? No.
The blog Jew in the City tends to highlight Ortho Jews who are at the top of their fields/industries/sectors.
In terms of your kid, I would say that if he is refusing, let it go. Seems to me you have more invested in this than he does, and that rarely works out well. If he has the interest and the talent, he can pick it up again later. Turning a perceived talent into a battleground is counterproductive. (Just my 2 cents)