No need to travel
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 1, 2006
I love traveling.
No, I’m not such a masochist as to enjoy relocating the lower half of my body after a twelve hour flight spent trying to figure out where to place my knees. And just in case any of those nearest and dearest to me read this column, be assured that returning home is always the best part of the trip.
So what exactly is it that lures me abroad five or six times a year? Sightseeing sans one’s better half exercises little appeal. And, in any event, I’m rarely in one place long enough to see more than the airport and the shul in which I’m speaking.
The highlight of nearly every trip is the remarkable people that one meets. I find it uncomfortable to stay in someone’s home without getting to know them. That getting-to-know-you process often takes longer than a first shidduch. One suddenly plunges into the life history of someone who only moments before was a complete stranger, and often reveals things about oneself that one would never think of telling the guy who sits next to you in shul.
On my first trip to Phoenix, my hosts turned out to be fellow Chicago natives of roughly the same vintage. Only when the red glow of dawn revealed a surreal lunar landscape, filled with cacti and rock formations, through the floor-to-ceiling glass panes that surrounded their entire living room, did I realize that we had spoken through the night.
Particularly in smaller Jewish communities, where a large percentage of the community is likely to be ba’alei teshuva or geirim, one can count on hearing many fascinating life stories. On one recent trip, I spent a Shabbos with a doctor in his mid-thirties and his family. My host never had the opportunity to learn in a yeshiva. Yet he has managed to complete at least one-cycle of daf Yomi, and even gives a daf Yomi shiur.
Had my host not mentioned it, I would never have remembered that it was thirty days before Sukkos and time to start learning Hilchos Sukkos. Daf yomi and amud yomi in Mishnah Berurah were only two of my hosts’ daily sedarim – many of them with chavrusos. And all this, while maintaining a full-time medical practice, and with a houseful of young children, who were not short-shrifted for attention.
In the guest room, I even found a thick trilogy of fantasy novels that my host had written as a means of inculcating Torah values. How one person could do all this in a day is beyond me.
My next host and I first met when he responded by Blackberry to something I had written, and it turned out that he and his family were in Jerusalem for Pesach. Our first meeting lasted no more than a half an hour. Now I would be staying with him and his family for a week (a welcome contrast to the usual living out of a suitcase).
In the course of that week, we went from being virtual strangers to close friends. Driving to a 6:00 a.m. Kollel every morning, walking an hour each way to shul on Shabbos, and breakfast and lunch gave us plenty of time to talk. In his early ‘30s, my host seemed to have it all: a happy marriage, three beautiful children, many friends, and a successful business career. His principle hobby at the time was Iron-Man competitions, involving swimming, running, and bicycling distances beyond my contemplation. (In one competition, on a very hot day, two of the competitors died of heat stroke.)
Yet he still had a gnawing feeling that something was missing. Despite lacking any Jewish religious training, he started reading for hours every day any Torah literature in English he could get his hands on. From there he moved to Gemara learning. For several years, his growing observance and study was largely a solitary pursuit. Only when he was absolutely sure that a full Torah life was what he wanted, did he guide his whole family, with much patience, love, and wisdom, to follow him. In all my travels, I don’t think I have come across another example of anyone who took on a full chareidi life at his age, while maintaining the entire external structure of his personal and business life.
OF LATE IT OCCURRED TO ME that it might not be necessary to travel far away to meet Jews who leave one in awe. They are all around us. The difference is that we take those we see frequently for granted. Our friends and neighbors too have stories, but we never bother to listen. We are all poorer for the failure to take note of the greatness right next door.
This morning in davening I was distracted by a steady stream of low-pitched cries. The source, it turned out, was a deaf teenager. I have rarely seen him in recent years, but I remember how as a young child he often ran into the street oblivious to traffic. Today he looks like any other yeshiva bochur, and davens with great fervor, occasionally pointing to the siddur to ask where we are.
Watching him daven, I try to imagine how it is possible to learn to read when one has never heard "Kametz-Aleph- Aw." How much did this young man have to go through to get to where he is today; how much energy did his parents and teachers have to devote to him.
A very idealistic young man on my street enlisted in the IDF a few years ago. While still in basic training, he injured his back. Since then, he has been in constant and intense pain, which makes it virtually impossible to sit, even after several major back operations. Yet he still makes it to almost every minyan, now with the aid of a crutch, and learns standing up. More remarkable, he is never seen on the street without a smile on his face, and nary a word of complaint escapes from his lips.. (His father tells me that even at home he always downplays his suffering.)
There is no need to fly across the ocean to find gadlus.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity
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