So this one isn't my brain child, but I was laughing out loud, so I thought you guys might enjoy it. How does this story relate to aliyah?
1. Aliyah isn't just about Land, it's about progress, about moving forward. This is one man's story of Jewish progress. Who knows - maybe he's in Israel now.
2. I made Aliyah from Manhattan, the scene in which the story takes place. Coincidence? Yes.
3. Israel is truly a Kosher Delight.
4. Chabad - next to Kumah, the most powerful grassroots activist organization in the history of Judaism. :-)Hell's Kitchen
By Matt Brandstein
By my mid 20s, I had effectively become another one of those unaffiliated Jews working deeply within the sitra achra (dark side) of Hollywood, vigilantly dumbing down civilization with entertainment goods so tasteless that their mass popularity was even more alarming than their utter lack of content. A lifelong diet of secular fanaticism in addition to the intellectual contamination from my thankless job had eventually caused such a debilitating case of spiritual attrition that, out of sheer desperation, my neshamah (soul) began a grassroots style protest campaign to take down my decadent lifestyle.
The mantra of a beloved Chabad rabbi with whom I had crossed paths months earlier in Times Square took hold of my thoughts as I bit into a crunchy BLT sandwich.
"You are what you eat!" shrieked his phantom voice as hot bacon grease scalded my hungry fingers. The snack was meant to be a quick fix comfort food for my clich?d feelings of generation x apathy, but the words I heard were an enduring revelation that prompted me to reflect deeply on my poor menu choice.
"I am a Jew... not a pig," I told myself through guilty sobs as I spit my last delicious bite of treifness into the garbage, which I then proceeded to throw into the bigger garbage outside on the street in the middle of the night just to hammer home the point. Diet had to be the single most practical area to achieve miraculous transformation, at least according to the hype. The media messages of life altering results and vibrant health promoted by the mega billion dollar weight loss industries finally made sense to a skinny guy like me.
While climbing up the five flights back home as a newly non-bacon eating Jew, I prayed that something as fundamentally important as kosher might provide me with the kind of practical salvation from the quicksand that had been drowning my integrity.
My sights turned to my shabby tenement kitchen, laden with the contraband ingredients and illegal concoctions, all set amidst a thick layer of residual grime that seemed to cruelly emphasize my culinary transgressions. Radical research was required to learn the legal ins and outs of preparing not just me but my home for proper Jewish use. Going kosher was certainly not the most common task in Hell's Kitchen (the actual name of my midtown Manhattan neighborhood), but I wasn't going to let a Satan get in the way of claiming my Jewish birthright...
A few days later, I gathered every dish, pot, pan and utensil in my kitchen, as well as all of the contents of my cupboards, fridge and freezer, and smashed it all to irrevocable bits. Normally, I would have been a bit more philanthropic with their removal from my home, but as a novice to Jewish life, I needed a visceral rite of passage to embrace the significance of this change, not to mention the brief catharsis destruction provides. A small part of me also wanted to eliminate the risk of another unaffiliated Jew inheriting this full kitchen set of spiritual troubles.
It would have been practical to send out a general press release announcing my new dietary restrictions to alert all of my relations, both professional and personal, with whom dining was an integral activity, but instead I just avoided everyone and spent most of the first two months of going kosher by myself in a corner booth on the second floor of the now defunct Kosher Delight on Sixth Avenue and 46th Street in midtown Manhattan. I tend to be a bit of a neurotic loner anyway, so disappearing into a world apart from my mainstream one didn't set off any alarm bells with those that know me well.
"I can eat sushi every meal and never get sick of it" is one of those innocuous phrases that upwardly mobile people with enough petty cash to regularly eat the stuff seem to repeatedly declare as they dig into their sixth or seventh piece. I bet they would eat those very words after, say, their twenty-second piece on the third day of the nothing-but-sushi diet. If one were actually crazy enough to voluntarily consume the same meal for the rest of their life, my own personal field research has lead me to believe that there is nothing more fitting for the task than the Kosher Delight snack box. This manna from heaven, consisting of crispy fried chicken and french fries, is flavor loaded with enough sodium enhancers to leave the taste buds relentlessly craving for more.
On the occasional treif restaurant outing with family and friends during my kosher-keeping debut, I always seemed to be at midtown hotspots within the ironic proximity of my beloved Kosher Delight. Not ready yet to declare my forward shift into Jewish observance, I simply feigned a lack of interest in eating to the curious amusement of my fellow diners. My rapidly expanding waistline from several weeks' worth of tens of thousands of snack box calories made even the overprotective secular Jews in my life back off from forcing me to order from the menu. However, I did manage to raise a few eyebrows, when, in some of the fancier restaurants, I insisted upon drinking my sodas from the can.
"I have a terrible germ fear. Who knows if they are really properly washing those dishes," I questioned aloud, thinking it better at that stage to sell my mental instability than my religious stability to a group that didn't seem too keen on Jewish orthodoxy.
While riding the D train back home from the Broadway Kosher Delight on an early Friday afternoon, I had my first moment of validation that I was actually going in the right direction with this dietary switch. It wasn't one of those Hollywood style Divine Providence testimonial-making moments that I heard about happening to others, but it was enough of an impetus for me to continue taking further steps towards a more Jewish life.
I pulled out a little booklet that a Breslover Chassid had handed me earlier that day while at my restaurant's counter ordering my ten-thousandth snack box to go. I glanced at the book's title, which was neatly printed under a gloriously illustrated crown. I roughly remember it was something like "You too can be happy!" I frowned and thought to myself, I am actually terribly unhappy, but it's still seems like quite a chutzpah to hand a guy a book that just assumes everything in his life is still in the "before" stages. I wanted someone for once to just make an assumption that a zero like me actually might already be an after.
A Chabad student then entered my subway car at 42nd Street. To make room for him, I quickly removed the food bag from my adjacent seat, allowing the beloved waft of snack-box vapors to (as the restaurant's name promises) kosher delight me. The steam tickled my face. As I went to scratch, I felt the unpleasant bump of yet another zit. Suffice it to say that eight solid weeks of fried food doesn't bode well for a healthy complexion. G-d only knows how my arteries survived!
As my eyes rolled up towards the heavens in self-disgust, I made eye contact with Dr. Zizmore, known to those in the New York metro area as Dr. Z, the famous dermatologist to the non-stars and not so rich. Granted, this was not actually Dr. Z in person, but his happy face plastered on a subway advertisement for his busy Fifth Avenue clinic.
Directly below Dr. Z., within the same ad panel, was a striking example of a young woman with terrible acne pocked skin. Fluorescent lighting and a lack of cosmetic cover-up painfully highlighted the callous texture of her ravenously destructive condition. The adjacent photo to the right showed the obligatory miracle of this woman's "after" look. Her transformation afforded her an unnaturally smooth skin tone. Not only did she have her zits sandblasted off her face, but she went in for the extra few bucks and had all of her pores surgically removed as well. Selfishly, I didn't care about her improved complexion. I just envied her success.
My anxiety level began to rise. I nervously pulled on the brim of my cap, shading my eyes from Dr. Z's pitchwoman's taunting smile. I focused again on my little booklet as the train chugged towards Times Square. Its pages promised the secret to achieving happiness, but by just contemplating its premise, I felt impossibly stuck against the enormity of my pressing discontent. I was still just a fed-up before in the same vein of the acne pocked lady. Unfortunately, dermatology can't yet heal the scars on one's psyche.
The young man sitting next to me cleared his throat with a subtle cough in preparation for speaking. He looked at my Kosher Delight bag and then up at me with polite concern. For once, there was not an "Are you Jewish?" uttered, as I have learned from experience to be a standard line in the realm of introductory outreach dialogue.
"Excuse me, what time does Shabbos come in?"
I hadn't yet figured on any sort of Shabbat observance at this point in my Jewish identification reclamation strategy. I was still trying to get down the fundamentals of kosher. Unexpectedly, while contemplating my response, the proverbial cartoon light bulb appeared to clarify my muddled thoughts and provide me with an unexpected jolt of excitement.
Something as transient as my Kosher Delight snack-box-to-go bag gave this young man the impression that I was an actual participant in our shared faith. Never in my life had someone asked me even anything remotely related to Yiddishkiet, and this man, an actual Chabad chassid with such visibly impressive religious credentials, made an assumption that I might be in possession of something as valuable as candle lighting times. The ascent my neshamah took at that moment sent my heart racing.
The encounter must have been fully irrelevant for him in the grand scheme of his hurried day, especially when I shrugged my shoulders and responded, "I'm sorry. I don't have a clue." But for me, it was a confirmation of my spiritual progress. I walked off the train feeling more inspired to continue my pursuit for meaning through a Jewish life. As that day faded into Shabbat, I even felt just a bit like an after at a time when I sure needed it.
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