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Why Halacha Still Matters

Photo by Sharyn Morrow via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I still remember my Zayde’s (z”l) voice, how he never raised it even to the level that most of us would consider normal talking. Yet he was not a soft-spoken man either, because his words were words of steel.
Zayde understood that I was not like other children. For one thing nobody could tell me what to do. This did not stop my father from trying, and as he had a natural tendency toward control it was inevitable that my neck would stiffen in response even if he said so much as “please come to the Shabbos table.”
Family relationships are complicated. It bothered me to see how my father kept trying to win Zayde’s approval. I think if it were me I would have been very angry. But Bubbie (z”l) had been in Auschwitz and Zayde escaped from a Romanian labor camp. So my father kept his head down and diligently observed Kibud Av VaEm anyway. To a level that way surpasses anything I would consider obligatory.
Regardless of the subtle discord I loved my Zayde anyway. His love made up for the fact that my father never seemed to think much of me. Looking back it seems inevitable — dad never able to express his true feelings to his dad, holding himself to a very high level of respect, and in turn expecting the same servitude from me. Which I experienced as unacceptably controlling.
Yes, I was just a kid. But I was always overly mature for my age. Probably a combination of nature and nurture; my mother treated me as an equal, as an adult. Frankly it felt confusing to live that way. Unhesitatingly, Zayde helped balance me. Never preached, but he did not shy away from teaching me — sometimes by quoting the halacha and always by being encouraging. 
“You are a good girl,” he would say. “You are very nice.”
I remember he used to drive me crazy asking which set of grandparents I preferred more. “Here or Monticello?” and by that he meant my Grandma and Grandpa (z”l), who lived in the Catskills.
Was that him being petty? I don’t know. It sure felt painful.
Because the truth of the matter was, despite how well he treated me, I enjoyed going to Monticello more. I am ashamed to admit it: For many years, my patrilineal relatives’ Chasidish clothes and mannerisms repulsed me. As I looked at them the Holocaust came alive.
They were so kind to me. Their own families had been gunned down. I was one of the few that were left.
I could not bear to think of it, I cannot think of it now, the tears start flowing again and I feel fresh blood coming out of a wound that never seems to close over.
Monticello was a relief because I could pretend that such things could never happen again. Although my mother’s parents did not get me in the same way as my Zayde did; they were very Litvish, straightforward, not emotional and not mystically inclined whatsoever. (Grandpa, famously, once threw me out of the house for talking about G-d nonstop.)
For her part, my grandmother loved me in a way that is hard to describe. The truth is she really loved all of the children and grandchildren equally, there was no playing favorites on her side. But that did not stop me from feeling a special connection.
When we made Shabbos over there, the basics were not something we ever had to talk about. I don’t recall a single argument over tznius, a single debate over whether we could use the TV, a single piece of food that was not unquestionably kosher.
Did we debate the halacha? Sure. Oh my G-d, the adults argued endlessly, all the time. Why are Chassidim always late? What is with this feminist movement and its crazy ideas?
I remember that they always ganged up on my dad, the token Chassid. And my grandmother used to say, “Oh Alex!”
My grandmother always felt like he was hassling me. She used to say — when I would leave the dining room table and sit on the couch adjacent to it before we did the benching, and my father would tell me that I have to stay and bench first — “Please stop making such an issue!”
My father and I are at peace now. If we could have my Zayde and my Bubbie back, my Grandma and my Grandpa, I believe we would rewind the clock and erase all the stupid fighting.
I remember one time I was talking with Aunt Sari about why I had become nonreligious. This was about three years ago.
“Blame Hitler,” she said.
In the conversation I understood her words only vaguely. I sort of got what she meant, that the Holocaust had messed us all up.
“You grew up in a fucked up family,” she said.
And continued, “You didn’t see a single consistent model of halacha.”
I, the great orator, tried to get around her but failed utterly. I explained that halacha just didn’t “work” in my life.
“You just do it,” she said. “What’s the big deal?”
The world we live in is secular; “my values” and “your values” are considered relative in nature.
“We’ll leave the light on for you,” said my aunt. Because she knows that I am religious at heart.
Of course, I am not religious enough. Worse, because I espouse one thing and do another, I am a hypocrite.
But we are where we are. Getting on the scale gives us a reference point from which to begin.
In the end, some will always argue for “kilograms.” Others will only trust “pounds.”
But all of us know that body weight exists. An if we stuff our faces to the max, we will probably die from overeating.

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