One of the few things about which I consider myself a maven is good writing. Reading one column, and often only a few paragraphs, of some of my favorite columnists – Bret Stephens, Mark Steyn, Paul Greenberg, Victor Davis Hanson – was enough to convince me that I did not want to miss anything they write. And I haven't been disappointed since. (Of course, there are others whom one must read for weeks or months to fully appreciate their breadth of knowledge and rare insight – e.g., Charles Krauthammer, George Will, David Goldman (aka Spengler), Walter Russell Mead, Evelyn Gordon.)
Closer to home, I remember telling Rabbi Nisson Wolpin many years ago, after reading a long essay by Rabbi Eytan Kobre, that it was a tragedy that Eytan was as yet undiscovered. Now, he is a household name. I was an avid consumer of Rabbi Ron Yitzchak Eisenman's Daily Vort long before the best of them started to appear in Mishpacha. And the first two paragraph's of Dov Haller's "Waiting for the Rabbi" were enough to hook me for life.
Well, I think I have another discovery, although I waited a little too long to claim finder's fees, since he has appeared inMishpacha the last two weeks: Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt of Dallas. I first met Reb Yaakov over a decade ago when he picked me up at the airport in Dallas. The first thing I noticed was that he had a severe stutter. But he immediately put me at ease: "Don't be uncomfortable, I know I stutter."
What came next was a bigger surprise. He told me that his stutter was his biggest asset as a kiruv rabbi in the Dallas suburb of Plano. Many affiliated Jews are uncomfortable when they meet frum Jews because they are embarrassed by their ignorance. The stutter, Reb Yaakov told me, gave him a vulnerability that placed the non-Jews he met at ease.
That self-knowledge and comfort with himself is precisely the quality that I enjoy most in Rosenblatt's reflections that have appeared in various publications over the years. Who else could write so-offhandedly of the end of a full-time kiruv career he and his wife had embarked upon with such high hopes, "We handed the reins of the fledgling branch to a younger couple better suited to bring the organization to the next level." Or of his next career as a mohel: "I recognized that part of being a successful mohel was being able to relax the mother, assure the father, and kibbitz with relatives from out of town. I am blessed with an intense and detailed oriented personality. Relaxing people is not my forte."
He writes about himself without solipsism or self-denigration. Reb Yerucham Levovitz famously interpreted, "Avraham recognized his Creator m'atzmo," to mean that Avraham discovered his Creator through knowledge of himself. Reb Yaakov has an ability to tap his feelings and life experiences for larger insights.
Reb Yaakov has the experienced kiruv worker's ability to use the artifacts of secular culture – Edward Munch's famous painting "The Scream," a letter of Albert Einstein sold on ebay for $3 million, in which Einstein dismisses religious belief as "childish superstition" -- to open up a discussion of Judaism. While Einstein's may have rejected religious belief at one level, for instance, the unfinished work of his final decades – Unified Field Theory's search for a single force holding the universe together – was profoundly Jewish in its assumption that there must be an underlying unity to all of Creation.
And he has written "Open Letters" to such figures as Mattisiyahu, after he cut his peyos and removed his yarmulke; Deborah Feldman, whose account of her escape from Kiryas Joel was eagerly picked up by the general media; and "comedienne" Sarah Silverman, who in her forties still has not moved beyond the six-year-old's use of naughty words to attract attention. The Open Letter to Silverman went viral and provoked a response from her father showing that the apple did not fall far from the tree.
To Feldman, he pointed out that her celebrity owed less to her writing talent than to the confirmation she offered of the secular lifestyle: "Those who cheer you on celebrate what you do not believe, what you do not do." But, Reb Yaakov wanted to know, "What do you believe? In which moral community will you find a home?"
In Dallas, with the general cultural emphasis on Judaeo-Christian values, Rosenblatt senses a greater receptivity to Torah values than he did growing up in the insular chareidi community of Flatbush. That's what initially excited him about Mattisiyahu. But the Jewish reggae singer disappointed him: His creative Orthodox message transmitted as a broader universal message ended up as purely self-centered. "'Look at G-d' becomes 'Look at me.'"
"Sometimes I lay under the moon and think each observant Jew should reach out and touch the world," Reb Yaakov riffs on Mattisiyahu's famous One Day. But in the singer's loss of direction lies a cautionary tale: "Now I see that community is the protector of G-d-centeredness, and that discipline is the precursor of Kiddush Hashem."
TO ME, HOWEVER, ROSENBLATT'S greatest contribution lies in his discussion of a topic not sufficiently talked about in our media – the "manly" (his word) pleasure to be found in supporting and protecting one's family. Ten years ago, he and a friend started a meat processing business. Reb Yaakov was following in the footsteps of his immigrant great-grandfather, who had been a shochet and butcher in Galveston, 250 miles southeast of Dallas. The $5,000 parental loan with which they started with was almost entirely lost the first day, when the first four cows slaughtered were all found to be treifos. But they persevered.
The change from kiruv rabbi to meat packer was not a small one: "My dream had been to push people along a spiritual path. Instead I was pushing carcasses along a rail. My dream had been to remove materialism from the hearts and minds of the masses. Instead I was removing salt from large pieces of meat. My dream had been to warm hearts and minds. I was wet and chilled to the core in a 34 degree cooler."
Yet it is clear that he takes enormous satisfaction in the dawn to twilight days and the mid-weeks spent far away Dallas in Kansas and Iowa needed to get the business going. There is an "utter reality" found in the for-profit world: "If you have a good product at a good price delivered in a timely fashion, you have business." But clients will not be interested that "you were at the dentist, lost your cell-phone, had in-laws in town, or took your first vacation in five years. It's about performance not intentions."
The only weapon in Rosenblatt's childhood home in Flatbush was a serrated challah knife for cutting his mother's braided, raisin challot. Recently, however, the decidedly non-macho Rosenblatt purchased a Glock 19. The responsibility of a husband to provide for his family in an honorable way is now joined "at the moral hip" with the promise to protect.
Rosenblatt feels no less connected to Hashem than he did as bochur in Chaim Berlin or a yungeman in Lakewood, writing a sefer on the Maharal, or as a kiruv rabbi in Dallas. But the working world has changed him profoundly.
"I see life differently. I see the dignity of the working man – who works all day, learns Torah at night, receives his paycheck and gives it to his wife to provide for their children – as Godly. It is much greater, much more spiritual than I ever thought. It grows a man to do what he must do first and what he wants to do second."
He does not view twelve-hour working days as time removed from Hashem, but as opportunities for Kiddush Hashem -- through his honesty, self-reliance, discipline. He takes satisfaction in aiding clients to earn a livelihood themselves by selling his kosher meat products.
Though he has an Internet filter, Rosenblatt increasingly views the solution to male weakness not in external regulation, but within the self. The key is male fulfillment. And, in his view, the primal male desire to provide and protect is a good place to start, especially when coupled to the mission of Kiddush Hashem. Where the sense of mission is strong the allure of smut will be weak.
Pursuing Kiddush Hashem, Rosenblatt writes, would help return us to some of the virtues of the first generation of widespread kollel learning – idealism and simplicity. And it would help us create a society sustainable for many generations.
The young idealist has not become cynical as a consequence of the surprising change of course his life has taken. Just the opposite. On turning 40, he finds himself preferring his forty-year-old mind to his younger body: "I am young enough to work hard and old enough to make decisions. I am young enough to take risk, but old enough to take reasonable risk." He has learned that the "possibility of 'now' is not forever, that opportunities do not last for long."
Most importantly, "I know G-d better at 40 than I did at 20. I know more of Him. . . . [T]he world carries a little less concealment with each year that passes. Good and evil are clearer. And the responsibility of man to make a difference – the demand on average men to do great deeds – is starker than ever."
At forty, Reb Yaakov finds himself "pray[ing] more than ever." He looks forward to sixty. He looks forward to eighty. But most of all he looks forward, in due time, to "peeling the veneer off nature, the curtain off history, to meet the Force of the Universe, the Source of beauty, the Essence of wisdom. . . . I want to see G-d."
Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt writes very well. But his greatest contribution goes far beyond that. He brings a perspective of someone deeply rooted in Torah – "[a Jew] cannot inspire the world unless [he] is lettered; a Jew cannot speak for Judaism unless he is learned" – but who also knows the satisfaction and even virtue of the world of hard work. It is another voice to which we should attend.