Saturday, July 23, 2011

Marrying Young and Financial Responsibility

On the first day of my college's summer session, I walked into my statistics class a little early and started speaking to the only other student in the room. I asked him what he was majoring in, and he replied that he had a double major--music (cello, I think) and mechanical engineering. An interesting combination, I thought, and certainly more practical than just majoring in music. So I said, "That makes a lot of sense, because it is probably easier to find a job in engineering than in music".

The student suddenly looked offended and horrified. He replied, "No, I don't care about money. I just love engineering."

Okay then. All I can say is that later on he will be thankful that his interests are music and engineering rather than music and classical French literature, because regardless of his motivations now at least he will be employable. I then realized, however, that I had this reaction because I have been in the "real world" for years and suffered the devastating effects of poverty brought on by lack of ability to earn a living.

When I married at eighteen, I was no different from this student. While I knew that I needed to get a job and work, the thought of going to college and/or delaying marriage for the sake of marriage was abhorrent to me. I didn't care about money or want to be rich. I was young and idealistic and felt that if I was willing to work hard then we would be fine. I was definitely wrong about that.

The problem is that both that student and I shared an attitude that is common among older teenagers and young twenty-somethings today. I would venture to say that for most middle or upper-class students, college is viewed as an expected rite-of-passage rather than a means of preparation for the future. Among frum people of the same age, the attitude is that marriage is a rite-of-passage and that finances will work themselves out afterwards.

Both of these attitudes reflect a lack of maturity. The problem within the frum world is that people typically get married while still in that immature state, which often leads to disastrous consequences.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"You Can Be Anything that You Want to Be, If You Try Hard Enough"

...Or maybe not.

When I was in ninth and tenth grades, my family lived in a small town far from any substantial frum community. I spent those years in a public school that had only five Jewish students, of which I was the only frum one.

In tenth grade I made friends with the girl who sat next to me in math class. Leila, a Muslim immigrant who came from Pakistan at the age of five, was one of the few students in the school who could relate to my religious observance, and I was one of the few students who understood her. We discussed topics such as modesty and dietary laws, and I was there to support her when her father caught her with a picture of a boy with his arm on her shoulder. The other students would not have been able to understand why her father cared.

One day Leila was quite upset. She described to me how she had spent hours writing and rewriting an essay for her honors' English class. She was distressed because she felt that no matter how many times she would try to rewrite it, the essay would still be terrible. Leila was an intelligent girl so I was sure that she was exaggerating, but I offered to look over her essay and help her rewrite it.

After our math class we went to the library to look at the essay. I was shocked. Using the word terrible to describe the essay would be an understatement. The essay was so bad that I could not understand what she was attempting to write. It was clear to me that she really had tried, but that for some reason she had no grasp of grammar. So I sat with her and helped her rewrite her essay, and then did the same at least once a week at lunch for the rest of the year.

One day I asked her, "Why are you in honors' English if writing is so difficult for you?" To me it seemed that remedial English would have been a more appropriate placement. She explained to me that her immigrant parents wanted her to fulfill the American dream of going to an ivy-league university, so that she could get into a top medical school and become a doctor, so her parents insisted that she stay in the honors'-level English track. She told me that she wished that her parents would let her take courses that were more appropriate for her.

Her parents had absorbed one of the most common beliefs of modern American society, that a person can be anything that he or she wants to be by trying hard. This belief seems to transcend religious and cultural boundaries, and Leila's parents simply could not understand that their daughter could not do well in honor's English, no matter how hard she tried. Leila was quite good at math and may well have done fine at a middle-of-the-road state college, and then possibly have gone to medical school, by taking an appropriate English class that would have taught her the skills that she needed to succeed. Alternatively, if she really could not learn how to write well enough to graduate college, she may have been able to find a trade that suited her. If Leila had been my daughter, I would also have had her evaluated for learning disabilities. By pushing their daughter to go in a direction that was not appropriate for her, her parents were setting her up for failure.

This attitude is seen particularly strongly in the frum world. The frum world defines success quite narrowly, yet argues that everyone can achieve that measure of success if they try hard enough. While some "elite" sectors of the secular world are guilty of having the same attitude, in most secular households success is defined broadly enough that everyone can succeed at something. When success for a man is defined as being able to learn gemara for hours per day, is it any surprise that many people end up feeling like failures? Many people simply cannot do that, even if they "try hard". If success for a girl is defined as being a good mother to a large family, is it any surprise that many people fail?

People are different by nature. Everyone is unique, and effort is often not enough to compensate for having inherent difficulties in a particular area. No matter how hard I try, I will never be a good baalebusta. Hopefully one day I will achieve the level of "mediocre". So why should I spend my life working towards something that I will always be bad at, rather than working towards a goal that will enable me to excel?

I unfortunately lost touch with Leila and do not know what happened to her. I, however, am determined to do what Leila would have done if she had the choice. I am going to follow the direction of my innate abilities and find a way to succeed at something.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Old Habits Die Hard

My university has a message board where every student is allowed to post, and all posts are listed under the person's legal name. Of all the topics discussed, the perennial favorite is religion. Typically religious topics spiral into a debate between a few evangelical Christians and a few Atheists.

The current topic of choice is "Why God Chooses not to Answer Some Prayers". In the course of the debate, one Atheist student responded, "You know man invented G-d right?". A Christian noticed the inconsistency of claiming that God does not really exist while writing his name with the "-", which is done as a form of reverence. The Christian assumed that the Atheist must have thought that writing God's name this way was a form of degradation rather than reverence, so he responded by "informing" his opponent that Orthodox Jews write God's name this way as a form of reverence.

Given the Atheist poster's highly Jewish-sounding name, I assume that he wrote "G-d" for an entirely different reason. Both frum and traditional kids are instructed from an early age not to spell God's name as a form of respect and old habits die hard. Therefore, the Atheist student feels the need to treat God's name with reverence even as he claims that God does not exist, due to the education that he received during childhood.

I assume that most people who have gone OTD have done something similar to this. Have you said a bracha on treif food? Sat in the dark while using the computer on shabbos? Said something like, "I went to the movies last shabbos and baruch Hashem it went well".

Do you think that this is inherently negative? It occurred to me that perhaps there is something to be said for treating God with reverence even if one believes that He exists only in ones mind, due to the benefits that religion has provided humanity or simply due to tradition. Or perhaps the Atheist student still believes in God in his heart but not in his mind?

As an aside, I have learned that it is not a halachic problem to write or erase shem Hashem on a computer anyway as computer pixels have no mamashus and are not halachicly considered writing. For the same reason, typing on a computer is allowed on chol hamoed even when real writing isn't.