Thursday, June 30, 2005

Leaving Xi'an to Beijing Tonight

I have to take exception from my mood last night. It is a dark experience when I spend too much time introspecting. There is the point of view that a person shouldn't have too much free time because it is during those times that he gets in trouble.

My friends would say that even hearing about this, namely my hermit crab moments, that I pretty much have things in order. My bank accounts and finances are in order, my room is neat and my life is organized, I am well groomed, I have friends albeit I am not as close with them as I would like to be, and I have a family who I love and who loves me, albeit I am not as close with them as people say I should be. However, nobody is complaining, and people seem to be content with my relationships with them. It is only me that wants the closer connection that I don't feel is returned by others. I am guessing this is probably because I have higher expectations, whether they be through the morals I developed by watching too many Hollywood movies or whether they be through my own making. Nevertheless, I have passed two years of law school and I have made it through most of the summer program; I have 18 days left until I come home to Denver.

I am still thinking of traveling to New York City for the remainder of the summer, maybe to get employment in a law firm, or to revisit my roots in the music industry at the Metropolitan Opera and at least follow through on my investigation into determining whether I have an affinity for the music world, or whether I am just rebelling against my lifestyle as I have set it up. I must be back in Denver to begin my third year of law school at the end of August.

Other than that, things seem pretty quiet. I visited the Shanxi Lishi Bowuguan (Shanxi History Museum) yesterday after class, and I wasn't so impressed. I wish I were more cultured in that I wish that I received more pleasure from things of value. All I could think of yesterday while I was looking at artifacts and mirrors that were four thousand years old was that I'd rather be watching a DVD. In fact, to me it all looked like old junk.

Anyway, it's 11:20 am on Thursday, June 30th, and I must check out in the next forty minutes because 12pm is check-out time. I slept through my morning class because I was up late last night and lately my body has been requiring me to have relatively normal sleeping hours or else it just takes its sleep from my morning without my ability to wake up as I normally would be able to. I can't imagine that this is an unhealthy thing.

My train back to Beijing is tonight at 8pm, and so I will be leaving in a few hours to the train station. I'd do something more exciting in the interim, but being checked out of my room and having seen most of the sites with the exception of the Terracotta Warriors which I am not allowed to see because it is a tomb with dead bodies and I am a Cohen (priest) and am not allowed to be under the same roof as dead bodies, there is nothing more that I would be interested in seeing here. I will arrive back in Beijing tomorrow morning at 8am, and I will take a train to the Rabbi's house and there I will spend Shabbos.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Alleyways into the Xi'an Underground

This afternoon I was uneasy about my planned excursion into the underworlds of the Chinese culture. I was rationed with one more day’s worth of food, no more vegetables, and I had to fend for myself until Friday when I would go to the Chabad House for some real food. Being that I was very hungry and I knew that if I stayed in the hotel room, my one day’s ration would turn into a one-hour ration, I decided to venture out into Xi’an on foot to find kosher food, namely, rice and vegetables.

Instead of going to the supermarket where everything was packaged, prepared, and not known whether it was kosher, I ventured on foot for around an hour into the alleyways where the common people live. It was interesting purchasing things in my broken Chinese, and I found that the Chinese were very patient with me, especially since I was about to give them money. I found the equivalent of a cucumber, but it was two-feet long and one-inch thick. I’ll be peeling those with my knife. I’ve had what I think these are before, but they didn’t have thorns and these are covered with them. I also bought corn on the cob which while it provides me almost no nutritional value, it still puts a smile on my face because I like the way it tastes.

After my purchases, I decided to make my way back to the hotel using the alleyways rather than the main roads because I thought that it would give me a glimpse into the real culture here away from the Xi'an tourist traps and the cheap junk markets. On that walk back through the alleyways to the hotel, I passed by children playing in what seemed to be a school building; when they saw me they ran towards me saying "hello" as one would talk to a bird. At one point, I realized that I went off course by the looks on the residents faces -- what is this well-dressed, bearded white boy doing in our village? One resident pointed in the direction I was going and signaled to me that the alley was going to end by making a T-shaped symbol with his hands. I thanked him and turned back and began to feel lost.

At one point, my ankles started to hurt from the shoes I was wearing. Luckily, I saw a taxi parked at the side of the road -- I wouldn't even call it a road because it wasn't even a dirt road; on his meter was 15.20Y, which means that he must have traveled a long way to come here to bring somebody home. Just my luck. I got into the car, showed him the card with my hotel’s name on it in Chinese writing, and he acknowledged that he knew where it was. He made his way out of the maze of the alleyways and pulled out of the side streets and onto a main street, and fifteen minutes later, I was back at my hotel’s revolving doors with a bellboy opening the door saying "welcome back sir." It felt good to be back.

Family Matters

You know, people who know me always lecture me about family, and how important they are to a person. My fault in my friend’s eyes is that I don’t take my family seriously enough, and that one day I’ll regret it. I’ve always agreed in theory with what they’ve said, but practically I’ve never felt like I was part of any such family unit that required this kind of unity that people talk about. It always seemed that my family’s motto was "look out for number one".

I’ll give you one example of what I am talking about. I’ve been in China for three weeks as of tomorrow. Yet where is my family? Have I received even one call from anyone? Is my father so busy painting the basement that he is too busy to call and to say hello? Is my mother so wrapped up in her life with her new husband that it is too much of a burden to reach out and say hello? I’m sure when he goes to China she’s on the phone with him multiple times a day. I could say with comfort and relief that the only person who has kept in touch with me is my brother who luckily is online often enough to catch him to have a quick conversation. I’ve corresponded with my brother on the instant messenger, but other than that and a quick short e-mail telling me that "mommy would like to say hello but..." where is the rest of my family?

Then come my friends. My wonderful friends whom I care about so deeply. One of them is so busy with procrastinating for his dental exams that he hasn’t written me to even say hello. The other one kindly responds with good conversation, but is like a closed cistern when it comes to saying anything about his life. Other friends are married, or have lost interest, and the others are too many states away to keep in touch on any level that would resemble a normal level.

I suppose all of this is my fault. I don’t reach out enough and I don’t make myself part of other people’s lives enough to be included in anything that is going on. You know, my Rabbi’s wife gets annoyed at me when I don’t keep my cell phone on me. What she doesn’t realize is that keeping my cell phone on me saddens me because it doesn’t ring. Friends don’t call. The only calls I get are those demanding my time or my money. Why bother having a cell phone where the only time anyone calls is when they need something from me, like to offer a free entry into a sweepstakes plan for a million bucks, or to check if I am satisfied with my banking account?

I suppose it is a double-edged sword. I don’t connect with others, so they don’t connect with me. But the reason I don’t connect with others is because I am tired of having one-way relationships with people who don’t share their lives in return with me. I feel like I am the one that is always calling, always visiting, and always reaching out. Yet I don’t feel connected. I don’t feel connected to anyone at all.

Could this be my depression talking? While what I am saying is objectively true, do I keep a barrier around myself protecting myself from harm? Do I build a wall so high to keep the bad stuff out that I don’t let other people in? I wouldn’t even know where to start. My solution is to find friends who are like me, but I haven’t done that. There is a lot I haven’t done. I have had hopes for years that I should forge myself into the person I want to be by developing interests and skills to put into my psychological tool belt. China is another one of these tools. So is speaking Mandarin. Stupid me, what good is anything I know how to do if I have nobody I care to do it with?

The tough question becomes then finding the right partner. I know or hope to G-d that the rabbi and his wife have at minimum one shidduch (woman) lined up to date me when I get back. After all, I have committed not to date on my own, and I was told to trust them that the right girl would be discovered. I however, sincerely hope that I have not changed too much on my trip here in China. This whole opera business and the whole line of thought into singing and acting and congruence within religious observance have messed with my mind and have brought me to a place I think I should have come to long ago. However, I wonder whether I will be "not religious enough" to fit into the group I was part of when I left.

The interesting part is that I have not deviated from my normal religious observance. I have just made some external adjustments in my dress and in my belief systems that are now more congruent with my inner thoughts and feelings. I wonder what difficulties lie dormant waiting for me when I return to my established life in the US? I read in a blog that people who become less religious do so because they have good reasons for doing so. I am finding being religious one of the loneliest experiences of my life. Whether I am living the truth or not, I don't like the social or the emotional circumstances that have surrounded me since I have become religious.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Xi'an Musings

When you wake up in the morning, who are you? Are you the person through whom you walk through the day, or is that person the person you wear to blend into your environment?

In truth, I have no idea who I am. I can describe to you my attributes, but to define myself by them can be deceiving because I can change them and form the habit to have different attributes. What about the way I look, is that me? Not really, this is a mask, just as are my clothing.

A close friend of mine would say that my identity is defined by my soul, and through that I know I am a Jew and so that should be my identity because after I die, and after my body has perished, what will be left is the spiritual stuff that entered into my body before I was born. He would say that my body is an extension and a physical manifestation of myself; a tool through which I interact with the world and am given the privilege of doing godly things (mitzvahs) to bring godliness down into our physical world; this is the goal of my life, and it is the goal of all of creation.

Yet while this sounds to me like we are by nature a collective mind, just as we were before the Tower of Babel, however our individuality is just an effect of the scattering so that we didn’t wage war on G-d. Nevertheless, here, millennia later, I sit in my hotel in Xi’an, China, searching for my identity but finding none with no purpose.

Why do I get the nagging suspicion there is no personality here? Why do I feel that I am only left with the mannerisms and the norms that have been dictated to me by the world I live in, and so I am stuck playing a game of right and wrong and just following the rules?

Today our group walked through the Muslim Market, which in its essence was more Chinese people selling blocks and blocks of the same junk and Chinese food. I am surprised that I’ve never had the temptation to go back to eating non-kosher food. Kashrut (eating exclusively kosher) was the easiest thing that I took on; this is amusing to me because food was my greatest enjoyment, especially with the amazing fast food restaurants I loved to frequent. Yet while I wondered today how interesting it would have been to eat a scorpion on a stick, or the innards of a snake, I could pass because the thought that non-kosher food would become part of me gives me the feeling that somehow I would tainted and that my spirituality would be poisoned on a very real and physical level.

Yet with all the spirituality, all I am given is clarity to know right from wrong, but this does not help me to feel good about doing right. I was once told that I would never feel good by doing a mitzvah, as physical light and chimes would not visibly come from the Tefillin that as a Jew I put on ideally every day during Morning Prayer.

Analyzing my six needs, namely 1) certainty, 2) uncertainty, 3) connection, 4) independence, 5) contribution, and 6) growth, I feel that I have all of these with the exception of connection when thinking about it from an iceberg level. While I do feel connected on an intellectual level to my Creator, and while I do feel a physical connection to my environment, it bothers me that I don’t understand the utility of this connection. Most of all, I don’t feel a connection to other people or a special other which makes me feel disconnected and incomplete in the world. Every night I come home to an empty room.

Lastly, I feel as if I have not yet found my purpose in life, so I am still wandering, endlessly searching for the specific meaning of life. I see myself as an inventor as I have all my life, and I’ve always known the feeling of the technology I want to invent, but I have no idea how to invent it, how to go about getting the funding to research it, or whether what I am searching is actually real in the universe. I suppose I went to law school with the purpose of learning how to move through the legal system to get the funding and the permits to create and protect this idea when it reveals itself to me. For the meantime, in going to law school, I always thought that working with inventions in Patent Law would lead me closer to that goal and it would pay the bills along the way.

Life is not about pleasure for me, nor is it about acquiring luxury or wealth. My life goal is to find tangible knowledge to make the spiritual physically perceptible and usable. Why? Perhaps because I believe humanity is going through a shift akin to the messianic teachings of which being Lubavich I have kept myself separate from so that I stay neutral towards the politics of it all; because I believe the story of the creation of the world in the Torah (Old Testament) happened and that story is continuing even today with the pages being written as we speak; because even before I became religious I was exposed to too much mysticism and I wanted to separate the real from the fake; because I read too many how-to books on astral travel, ESP, and other topics that didn’t work when I worked for months trying to perfect the techniques; because I feel that there are too many theories out there and not enough tangible, testable facts that lead people to their beliefs. Perhaps I just want to know the truth and I don’t want to be lied to anymore with people’s beliefs.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Xi'an Marketplace

I spent most of this evening in the markets. I stopped at a barber shop to get a haircut because my hair was starting to get long. It cost 20 RMB (which is equal to around $2.50). The barber washed my hair, cut it, then washed it again to wash off all of the excess hair that would normally leave one itchy until one got a chance to shower off. I thought that washing the hair twice was a great idea – they don’t wash our hair twice in the US. I was thinking of postponing my haircut another sixty days to total one hundred and twenty days of not getting a haircut. However, if I didn't get one now and if I waited until I got back to the US, my hair would have been so long that I wouldn't have wanted to get a haircut at all because I've been wanting to grow my hair shoulder-length like I used to have it before I started my marketing job in 1999.

The image that comes to mind when I think of how long my hair used to be is that of either the Crow or of Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic back when he was a role model for romantic manliness. If I grew it now with the beard, I'd probably look more like a Lord of the Rings character than a normal human being. Now, with a short and neat haircut, I just look like a regular Lubavicher chossid. I still draw attention to myself when I walk the streets. I think I am the only one in this city with a beard.

The markets were surprisingly filled with blocks and blocks of the same stuff. Some low-quality underwear, some cheap socks, watermelons, peaches, barbers, used book stores, and blocks and blocks of Chinese food stands. There was a point where I lost my direction because everything looked the same no matter which way I turned.

Later, I joined two students from our program. We made our way deeper and deeper ino the labyrinth hoping to find something of quality. Eventually, we made it into the back alleyways where there were half-dressed men playing cards. I could tell that we were getting away from the mainstream products, but even the products sold in the back markets were junk.

This was my experience of the marketplace in Xi'an. It was still an amusing experience. Nevertheless, it still made me glad to be an American.

Xi'an - An Isolated City

Hello everyone. I am in Xi'an, and everything is okay. I pretty much had to hack my way out to get this to you, and it will be much more difficult than it was in Beijing. All that I needed to do there was to run an anonymous server and re-route my internet connection to look as if my browser request was coming from another country, namely the US. Here I cannot do that, because any server that is not on a list of Chinese permitted servers is blocked and is inaccessible. I had to dial out using the hotel phone and log into a SLIP/UNIX server to get to a terminal window which I used to obtain an international IP and then use that to connect. Crazy, eh?

Anyway, I'm checking my e-mail now and I'm going to upload a blurb on what is going on in China, but blogging will be severely limited until I arrive back in Beijing next Sunday. Everything is okay. I've primarily been focusing on my studies because the professors are really nailing it to us regarding volume and if I don't keep up with the hundreds of pages each night I will sincerely be lost because the speed at which they are going in class is mind boggling.

Personally, I am okay. I am going through some self-discovery where I am realizing that for many years I have been blinded to a piece of the person I am now realizing that I have been all along. I tried singing the other day -- really singing out loud alone in a place where my voice can resonate, and I got so excited that I broke into a sweat and my heart raced and my palms sweated from the excitement. Apparently, I still have a voice which I haven't heard in years. I thank my recent experience before I left to China for bringing this out in me, and when it comes to lessons learned from unexplained experiences, I hope this is one of them and I hope I am onto something.

I'm not going to drop everything I've been doing and run away into a new profession and a new lifestyle, chos v'sholom (G-d forbid). But, what I am going to do is expand a bit and become a worldlier person, exploring this world of the arts that has been dark and abandoned by me for so many years. I realize that I have limited my interests by my circumstances, and I realized that I am far more than I have let on to even myself who I am. This will be an interesting trick, however, because I have dug myself into a corner on many aspects of my life which I'll need to do some breaking out to move forward. I am sure some of my friends who met me after this stage of my life will find my new interest strange and out of character, but I trust that they’ll help me to adjust. I hope that G-d gives me the strength to realize these changes and that they are seen as favorable in His eyes.

Xi'an overall is okay, but it feels bigger than Beijing even though it is smaller. I am feeling a bit pressured here because everything is in the hotel, and so outside the hotel doors are a foreign world to me that is unfamiliar and scary. I will venture out today because I don't have enough food to last the week, and so I am not sure what I'll do because kosher food isn't available here. It looks like I will live on rice, vegetables, and fruit. I just have to find a market to get these supplies.

As for socially, I am feeling disconnected from the program because I have not attended any of the events that are on Friday nights or Saturday because I've been observing the Sabbath. However, it has been during those times that people have been bonding by going out to dinners, to bars, and on the organized trips to see the sights. Unfortunately, I have not been with them, and so the only times I see them are in class where everyone is stressed. During the evenings after classes, generally the people on our program have been going out to dinner, then to karaoke bars and getting drunk and then ending up in some dance bar. Again, activities I have not participated in.

Lastly, my Indian ex-room mate has not helped things either because it seems that as soon as I moved out in fear that I might say bad things about him (which I have been careful not to say anything bad about him when people asked why I abruptly moved out and requested a single room), he began spreading lies about me which I find to be completely childish. Anyway, he has not made things easy, and to my surprise, I saw him wearing an Arafat hat with a shirt with Arabic written on it. Forgive me if I am naive, but are there Arabs in India? It turns out that from speaking to others, he is a major Jew-hater. I would have thought otherwise from all his questions during our initial conversations. My luck; anyway, I am glad I moved out when I did.

Lastly, I wish I had a more positive message; I am enjoying China and am enjoying learning their culture and their language, and I am enjoying the program. I wish I had some of my friends or family with me here because I am sure that seeing the sights would be an exciting experience (and I will try to squeeze some sightseeing into my trip), but it is no fun to do it alone. I'd rather do it with someone I love. It's lonely here.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


I sometimes wish I had control over things other than my emotions. Wouldn’t it be nice if a person could control his environment, namely others? As you know I moved out of my room on Monday, and tonight we are traveling to Xi’an, where I will spend one Shabbos alone. This could not be avoided; the price to make alternate plans was too great. Since I would be in a place where the is no shul (temple) and no other Jewish families, the Rabbi in China packed me just enough kosher bread and grape juice for Friday night and Saturday afternoon so that I can do my mitzvahs of seudah and Kiddush and nothing more.

Upon moving out of my old room, I noticed that my new room had no refrigerator, and the bread would go bad before Shabbos. So the one favor I asked of my Indian roommate was that he let me leave my bread in the freezer of the refrigerator in his room. He agreed.

This morning when I went to his room to pick up my bread, I saw him munching on the bread. "Oh, these were yours?" he asked. Staying calm and morally wanting to hit him, I took a deep breath and said to myself, three pieces is enough. I’ll reuse the second one from Friday night so that I’ll have the required two on Saturday. Unfortunately, the pieces were warm because he took them out of the freezer and left them on the desk, so they defrosted. There is no other place to get Challah in China, at least not this close to the train ride. I hope they don’t get moldy before I need to use them tomorrow and the day afterwards.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Do I smell depression in the air?

I have succumbed to the necessary evil of placing the poison cartridge into the RAID device and plugging it into the wall so that the mosquitoes would stop chewing on my flesh. I was warned about it when I got here and I was told not to sleep with it or else I'll wake up stoned. I have just had it with the mosquitoes here, especially with all the diseases floating around China that can be transferred by a carrier mosquito bite. Today I saw a man walking around with a surgeon's mask and it reminded me of SARS and it got me scared that these things could be floating around the China ecosystem.

I stumbled upon a blog that caught my interest. The name of the blog is Nice Jewish Girl. This site frightened me more than anything, because I am not too many years away from her age. However, what frightened me was that I didn't even need to read her whole blog to know what she was saying, because I felt that her words could have been written by me about myself. I got chills when I read about her experience of being single and how it landed her in a doctor's office for depression. I have a secret fear that I am not too far away from that myself.

In her post, she writes an interesting comment about how Rabbis tell baal teshuva (newly religious) boys and girls to stop being physical and they do, just as I did. However, without some kind of way to fill the gap of the suddenly missing intimacy, there remains a void which eventually alienates that pious individual from both the members of the opposite sex and himself or herself, as sexual activity is no longer part of that person's life. Sure, a person can hire a prostitute or do something cheap with someone, but realistically for moral, health, and psychological reasons, no normal person will do that. At least I wouldn't.

Even if the fear of getting caught were erased, I still couldn't do it because then I would have to lie to my wife when I got married because I wouldn't have the heart to tell her that I couldn't deal with being single anymore, so I fucked a friend or I hired a prostitute, or I found a girlie to have meaningless sex with. I'd rather deny myself all physical contact as I have been and spare myself the need to lie to someone later or worse yet, to actually tell my wife about these experiences if they happened. I would rather not give in to my temptations at all so that I wouldn't lose the moral integrity later on when I did tell my future wife what I did.

For that reason, I stay alone night after night, and counting now five years of being shomer negiah (absolutely no physical contact with a woman) -- a 180 degree change from living a normal life with a girlfriend, movies, dancing, and dinner dates. This lack of all that has probably had an effect on my emotional state. In the "Nice Jewish Girl" blog, it almost led her to suicide, but rather it led her to get medical attention for the depression that developed.

Which brings me to my thought. I wonder whether I am what some would call clinically depressed. Any test I have ever taken since becoming religious has pointed out that I experience severe depression on a regular basis. Yet, I am one of the most balanced people I know, and it seems like I am like all of my peers. Could they all be depressed too? I am productive when I need to be, and I am social when I need to be. Yet when I don't have a responsibility to be social, I am alone in my room in solitude, whether it is at a hotel room in China, or whether it is alone in my room in my dad's house. I often wonder whether I should get medical help, because anything and everything that people have written about depression seems to apply to me. I can spend days alone without going outside to see sunlight, in fact, I accidentally often do. I'll want to take a few hours off, and I emerge days later not knowing what day it is. I've been happy for Shabbos these past few months, because it seems to come every few days instead of at the end of every week. However, I would not describe myself as sad, just a bit numb and indifferent. I am able to distract myself from any bad feelings that enter into my mind because I don't find value in wallowing in my own self-pity.

Anyway, all this talk about depression is just a question that I ask of you because you've been reading my blogs for these past few months and I value your opinion. I am not changing any life path as I thought I might last night, nor am I breaking away from law school, nor am I becoming a heretic to religious life in order to pursue the life of an opera singer... just yet. I have the tracks of my life laid out in front of me, and I am the locomotive driving at full speed down this path that I have chosen.

"Black and White" or Color, Deeper...

I don’t know whether my thoughts tonight have their source in evil or in truth, nevertheless, I am stating them as feelings and I am not holding by them until I think this through with a clear head.

I am uncommiting myself from the practice of law, and I am uncommitting myself from living a religious life according to Chassidic strict observances. I no longer even want to wear the title of having the status of being frum because I do not want to be a hypocrite just in case I ever go down the path I am about to describe. I see being called frum was a belt earned as one earns a black belt in one of the martial arts, and it is one that I am not sure that I deserve or want.

The fuse that has blown within my head is the one that has the need to live life to its fullest, and to destroy mediocrity in its hiding place of complacency and in its forcing us to limit our thoughts to fit within a box. I have made so many changes and I have made so many sacrifices to reach my pinnacle of religious heights and I did it because I was looking for truth. But if religion and hiding from music, art, and beauty is truth then I don’t think I want truth anymore. I think I would rather choose evil.

I can’t believe music of all things is my weak point. I don’t even like music. I’ve hidden from the opera and I have shunned musicians, artists, and actors as being stupid and flamboyant for their own self-grandeur for years since I was shunned myself by my peers at the Pleasant Acres Farm Campground for being an opera singer when I was a child. I couldn’t bear the pain of being ridiculed by my friends for something they did not understand.

It was after that experience of being called an opera singer that I rejoined mainstream life**. I went back to being a regular person, leaving the magic and the gifts that were allegedly bestowed upon me in a dream-like past. I went back to elementary school, I graduated high school; I went to college, and I graduated with a science background that prepared me to become a doctor. I detoured off the beaten path and I worked for a few years in plastic manufacturing and sales; I had a few business pursuits fail me; I got accepted into an Int’l MBA program; I got the interview of my dreams as a coach for Anthony Robbins; instead, I went to rabbinical school and then law school; now I am one year away from getting my degree and taking the bar exam.

**While I was in the shower tonight, I couldn’t help but to notice a rift in my timeline. What happened around the time that I took such a sidestep in my life’s path of acting and music? It came to me that around the time everything musical ended, my family also fell apart. My parents got divorced, and as far as I can understand it, the hard times hit and life's dreams crumbled around me. I built to surround me this strong character that you see today with walls that were unbreakable. I believe that this might have been around the time that I stopped living life and I began decorating the walls of it.

I have never been able to put my finger on it, but I have never had the comfort of feeling that everything in my life was the way it should be, and deep inside, something has always felt terribly wrong. My search for truth has always been to rectify that wrong feeling and to fill that void deep inside my heart.

I am getting worried that I might not be on the right path, and I am also feeling that I am heading deeper and deeper down a path that I might not want to take. Which path I take should ultimately decide who I will take for a wife, and what kind of family I will have. If I make one decision and shift paths, this would be unfair to the kind of woman I would typically meet today, and so I feel the need to either explore the options quickly and make them known now before I marry, or to delay finding a wife until I have sorted this out. The preferred route will be to find a woman who will have her feet in both worlds, but who adheres to her moral beliefs.

G-d puts everyone on this planet for a reason, and we learn in Chassidus that nothing happens for no reason. There is a purpose for everything, and the one thought on my mind right now was the last shidduch that ended without an explanation.

I have come up with one hundred explanations, and probably all of them are true. The version of the story I have settled upon believing was that this girl could not marry a Cohen because of something that happened to her long ago that was not her fault or her intent, nevertheless, she was halachically barred (halacha is Jewish law) from pursuing a marriage relationship with me because of her misfortunate event. When she found out how much religion meant to me, she broke it off because she couldn’t bear the thought of entering into a marriage that was based on a lie and a violation of Jewish law, especially because she knew I would never be comfortable starting a marriage that had its roots in sin. I suppose it probably took her a few weeks to reconcile this truth because while we got along well, I am now of the opinion that all those other problems were fronts for the big one that in the end she couldn’t move forward. Rather than lie to me and risk a later break up and rather than disclosing this unfortunate blemish, she ended it and took the blame that she generally could not commit. I like this version of the truth because it puts her in the best light where she left me in mesirus nefesh (self-sacrifice) and reverence for the truth that we couldn’t be together because of religious reasons.

However, G-d does not make mistakes, and he brought her in to my life and took her out from my life for a reason. I suppose that we both grew from the experience, but specifically, on the surface, the lesson here was that I was not required to wear only black and white, but that I could have color in my life as well.

Deepen that concept and you arrive at the topic of tonight. Color and black and white. Black and white stands for all that is purely good or purely evil, namely extremes. It is the way we learned to dress in yeshiva (rabbinical school), and it is the way we learned to think. Yet the Lubavicher Rebbe stressed that a person should always walk the middle path, never to live in extremes. Of course I am taking his statement far out of context because he would want a person to be as religious as possible; nevertheless, the understanding for me tonight is that Judaism represents black and white. Color represents music, art, touch, a woman’s voice, and shades of the truth. The lesson that took place the night before she ended the shidduch was that there is no requirement to wear exclusively black and white, and that a life of music is not contradictory to a life of religious Judaism.

Therefore, it is my understanding tonight that I have fallen off my path long ago and that I have not yet found my way back. The life of a lawyer, a wife and children, all formed on the backbone of Chassidic Jewish observance might not be the truth I want to live, and if it is, it certainly is not the whole picture. It might be true that the color I am searching for is evil and is a lie, but I might be willing to take that chance. I no longer wish to live in a box of black and white self-limiting thought. I no longer am committed to living a normal religious life, and I am no longer committed to living the life of a lawyer. I have not yet found my truth. This is a nice resting place, but it is not it. For this reason, I will continue my search.

Now for the disclaimers. I have committed to finishing law school, and I have committed to the religious practices I have taken on so far. However, I am not comfortable with the concept of kol isha (the prohibition against listening to a woman’s live voice), just as I am not comfortable with the no singing, no acting, no opera rule. I once promised to myself that I would never draw lines to indicate that I would not pass a certain level of observance, however I feel strong enough about this for a line to be drawn – not between myself and religious observance, but between me and G-d. I know that hearing a woman sing is forbidden, just as I know some other things are forbidden as well. Right or wrong, I side with G-d and I believe that I would be wrong for doing these opera, music, dancing, and acting-related activities. However, I can not commit to not doing them. For that reason, I revoke the title of being frum and I remain a moral person.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Let’s see... How do I say this? An interesting character trait of mine... I'll exert and exert not realizing when I've gone way past the threshold point where many people would stop... Then without crashing, my body adjusts and I’ll disappear for a day, only to resume activities the next day as if nothing has happened.

After classes yesterday, I convinced my room mate that it was better for each of us to have our own separate rooms. We checked out, settled the bill, and then we checked back in our respective rooms.

I was awe struck when I saw my new room -- when I say new, I mean literally new! Everything is made from dark brown oak wood, and the lights are small halogens in the ceiling. The bed has a pillow filled with beads, and a down blanket. The dark grey rough marble stone bathroom has a bathtub and a light with a pink glow that shines from beneath the sink onto the floor. I feel like I am in a Sharper Image catalogue, especially with the HDTV monitor attached to the wall in front of the bed.

I spent most of last night unpacking and repacking because I have been living out of my bags since I got here. I watered my sprouts, and I started my vegetable garden in the room because the vegetables I purchased at the market tasted very strange. The vegetable sprouts I am growing take around 3-4 days before they are fully grown. I am not sure what else I did other than charge batteries with my new battery charger (I blew out the old one because the voltage here is twice as strong as in the US), cook dinner (rice with soy sauce), and get organized, but by the time I laid down to bed, it was past 2 am.

My Chinese is getting better. I am finding that from the words I've been learning, I've been able to piece together sentences to the point where a native Chinese speaker would be able to figure out what I am saying. Last night, I went to an electronics store and negotiated for my friend a deal on an electronic Chinese-English dictionary. The funny part was trying to explain to them that he doesn't speak or read Chinese, so we needed the transliteration of the Chinese words on the dictionary screen. They call that Pinyin, if I remember the word correctly.

For myself, I negotiated an IBM DVD/CD burner for far below US market price. Generally, things here are so much cheaper, but when it comes to electronics, the Chinese really try to keep prices on par with US prices. However, as far as I understand it, since the cost is so much lower to produce, their profit margins are so much higher, which allow them to sell things at a lower price if you ask them with enough determination. Anyway, so after walking away from the shopkeeper after getting a price that I was ready to pay, I came back with an amount of cash that was slightly above my original asking price -- around 50Y under our final negotiated price. I was hesitant buying hardware from a market, especially because it was 1) likely a fake as are most of the things made in China, and 2) there was no guarantee that it would even work. Nevertheless, I felt comfortable after he offered me a 3-year warrantee plan on the device (which need I say, I did not take). When he had my cash in his hands, even though it was less than the amount he wanted, he couldn't say no. I suppose there is something psychological about holding the actual wren (Chinese dollars) as opposed to just writing numbers down on a piece of paper in a price negotiation. I laughed (and sighed) when I took the unit home because it worked; however, it was a Sony model, not an IBM.

After seeing the clock move past 3am last night, I realized that I needed to get to bed for today's class. Today the plan was that after our classes, we were supposed to have a trip to the patent office and then to some science museum that I was excited to go to. The problem was that this morning, I did not wake up and since the curtains were drawn so tightly shut; I did not see that the sun had risen. This was a mess up on my part. I don't know why, because unlike my natural inclination to wake up at 6am after sleeping for only three hours, I woke up instead seven hours later which meant that I missed my classes for the day. This is a bad thing, but I don't know what to say or do except to suck it up and make sure I don't do that again. I'll need to pay more attention to my sleep patterns, especially because I am on a twelve-hour jet lag which sometimes makes me feel that the middle of the night is really the middle of the day.

Otherwise, everything is okay. I leave to Xi'an on Thursday with the program on a twelve hour rickety-rackety train ride through rural China. I have been excited to see this part of China since I arrived here, because so far, all I have seen is the equivalent of a polluted New York City on a hot, summer day. It's almost 1pm here, and I have a headache from the stress I experienced earlier today that I missed classes and the tour. My plan for today is to be a hermit, and to stay in the room, take a bath, do some reading for tomorrow's class, and to not see people. I am, after all, an introvert at heart.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

I might defy you stars!

I am feeling resistance towards the thought that the opera path has been closed to me. When it was permitted in my eyes, it was never a problem. Now that it is supposedly forbidden, I am experiencing resistance to the idea of never doing it again.

Resistance according to Chassidus (Jewish mysticism) arises when you've approached the truth. The truth is never easy to come by, and often when you are doing something right, contrary to logic, you will experience resistance.

I am feeling a defiance toward the explanation offered to me, and I have contacted my Rabbi at home to ascertain the full picture of what the leniencies exist within the law of kol isha (law regarding a woman's voice) to find out if there is, in theory, a way for a religious man to pursue this activity.

Keep in mind, I will be an attorney in one year and this seems to be my path according to where the currents of life have brought me. Giving it up for a dream to be an opera singer or to be an actor seems impractical. The application of this law, however has two consequences -- 1) I will not be able to go see an opera with my wife when I get married, and 2) if kol isha applies to operas, it also applies to musicals which I love dearly.

Of course, I know that there is a leniency and a strong opinion that kol isha applies only in person, so recordings and videos are not prohibited. However, it is my secret dream and my secret fantasy that has been trampled on, and this is actually the point I wish to reconcile.

Get me Out!

I'd scream "get me the hell out of this room," but I already arranged it. My 300 lb Indian room mate has spread himself and his belongings out to the point that I walked into the bathroom and almost got my head cut off by a string he tied from the shower to the wall to hang his wet belongings. When I exited my bed this morning, I almost stepped into a pile of his used papers, and when I missed that, I almost fell into his suitcase on the floor in the middle of our small hotel room. When I went to exit the room, I couldn't find the doorknob because he hung his pants and shirts on the wall.

Not to mention that he was playing the TV really loud last night and he fell asleep with it on. Plus, he opened up the window in the middle of the night, which let in many mosquitos. When I went into the fridge to get some soy milk for coffee, I noticed that his non-kosher milk products dripped all over my food. Further, when I walked back into the room this morning after meeting with the hotel staff, I almost passed out from the smell. Lastly, I'm not even unpacked one bit and this room and its shelves are overflowing with his junk. I couldn't even begin to imagine unpacking -- there is nowhere to put anything. I would call room service to tell them to clean up, but I can't find the phone because it is buried somewhere near his mud. I'm outta here. I get my own room at 3pm today. Did I mention that I didn't even like him?

Saturday, June 18, 2005

So What Happens Now? Where Are We Going To? Don't Ask Anymore...

Hello Diary. I have exactly one month before I return home. Five weeks seems like such a short time to be here. The goal of coming here was not only to learn foreign intellectual property law, but also to blend in, so to speak, with Chinese society to learn how they live. From what I gather so far, their culture is very similar to Jewish culture. Their goals and value systems come before their pursuit for money, and family certainly comes first. Everyone seems to be friendly, with the exception of the occasional uncontrolled giggles I will experience when I walk by certain individuals. A few days ago, using my body language I asked what was so funny; one of the giggling men pointed to my beard. I suppose they don't see long beards in China that often, except on old men, but my beard is black as night on a new moon.

I have come to terms with a few thoughts that I have had on my mind since last week. Specifically, I am referring to the thought I've been having for the past few weeks about pursuing a lifestyle of music and theater. As you know, I used to sing at the Metropolitan Opera as a child, and I have always wondered how to integrate that part of me with the advances that have come with my becoming religious. I've been working on being a baal koreh (one who leads the congregation in prayer), but I've always wondered whether channeling this need into only that was a proper use of the talents I once had. Plus, I am in law school, and the momentum I have built (dare I say tsunami) on this path would certainly conflict with any desire I have to perform. It is not even the singing, the fame, or the excitement of being on stage that attracted me to return to the opera scene; it was the charm of the lifestyle, namely, "the show," where everything is nullified to the purpose of giving the gift of entertainment to the world.

My favorite experiences of the opera were backstage, where things often went wrong. One time the stage caught a guy's tie (of all things) in the fourth act of La Boheme as the stage was fitting into the floor; the curtains opened up, and the guy was still trying to get free. Further, it was times like those, for example, when the city backdrop fell forward and thirty strong men had to grab the ropes and pull the fake buildings back up, or, when the horse carriage ran into the side of the wall in Cavalaria Rusticana while entering onto the stage throwing some of the people off the carriage, or when the stage opened up and split between my legs one day exposing over twenty stories of empty space (all I remember seeing beneath me were the light bulbs from each floor), or when the man dressed in the toy soldier's uniform fell through the stairs and broke his leg -- these are the experiences that stay with me.

In addition, I remember my last performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York when I played a bald-headed monk in Turandot . Prior to going on stage, I couldn't get the bald headed mask to stop popping off my head because my hair underneath was very long, and the glue on my neck wasn't holding the mask on. So the costume people poured rubber cement into the bald mask to keep it from popping off. Actually, I remember the many hours afterwards where women were picking at my hair with bobby pins trying to get the mask off and the glue out of my hair. Experiences like those stay with me, but good or bad, these were the experiences of my youth.

I had an inspiration these last few weeks (few months) to return to the opera, and I am sad to say that the exposure to the Phantom of the Opera movie brought all those dormant feelings back in full force and more, to the point that I was considering returning to the opera and using my childhood connections to pick up where I left off.

The charm of the opera experience was not only in those things above that went wrong, but more so, the charm was in the mentality of all those involved -- the hundreds and thousands of people would put in their full effort day and night to make the production work. I have longed to go back to that and to reconnect with that kind of experience because what I remember from those experiences was that I was part of something bigger than myself. While I am sure I get this same feeling from being religious, sometimes I feel that being religious is limited to being shared between me and G-d, and that the results of my actions when I do a mitzvah (commandment) such as putting on Tefillin or praying are not visible, and are certainly not as tangible as something that you can put a psychological frame around and say "I did this". I suppose perhaps it was the sense of accomplishment that I enjoyed, or the results from all the weeks and months of hard work and practice dedicated to just a few nights of performance. Or, perhaps it was just the lifestyle and the glamour of it all that I enjoyed.

Anyway, I had a long discussion with the Rabbi here in Beijing about the topic of operas, and while I did not let on that I was talking about myself, he told me that operas, especially with women singing in them are completely asur (forbidden) and are not halachically (according to Jewish Law) permissible. As far as I understood, the main issue to me going back to singing in the opera is kol isha (listening to a woman's singing voice). As clearly as I can explain it, G-d set up the world in a way that a woman's voice was naturally meant to arouse a man on many levels. This would be permissible [at times] if a man was with his wife, but otherwise, a man should not listen to the signing voice of other women. My natural reaction to the conversation was "come on Rabbi, do you really expect me to get aroused when I hear a woman's voice?" and the answer as far as I understand it was yes -- a woman's singing voice is meant to have the affect of arousing the male's senses.

I would compare this explanation to the prohibition against touching women, an activity I also don't partake in, although I often wondered why the no-touch policy between men and women had to be so strict after a certain age. My personal feeling is that a person should be able to control himself and separate intimacy from something as simple as a handshake with a member of the opposite sex. However the point that I feel I overlooked is that the nature of a touch between a man and a woman is meant to be intimate. It is a special, sacred thing that should be shared only between a husband and wife, and not cheapened by sharing touch with every person of the opposite sex who holds out their hand to shake yours. While on the one hand a person who shakes the hand of a member of the opposite sex and remains unattracted and unaffected may be described as being controlled, from this explanation, it is my understanding that if this person requires little effort to restrain himself from feeling anything, then this person's senses have been dulled as have been so many other peoples' senses who have cheapened themselves and allowed themselves to touch and to be touched by anyone. Free love isn't so free when you lose the sensation and the pleasure that is supposed to come along with love. Think about it.

This same argument applies to the prohibition against listening to a woman's singing voice. It is meant by its nature to have an affect on a man. For that reason, it is kodosh (holy), which can explain why within Judaism it has been sanctified and separated from the regular and the mundane to be something special. Therefore, for that reason, it is assur (forbidden) for a man to listen to a woman's voice, just as it is forbidden for a man to gaze at a woman's beauty or for a man to touch a woman when they are not married.

For that sad reason, I feel that I have the duty to abstain from pursuing this line of planning my fantasy of somehow and someday returning to the opera scene. This is not the kind of place a frum person should be, unless I learn otherwise. So this desire within me will have to find another way to manifest itself, because this way has seemingly come into contact with G-d's law.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Better to Speak or to Act?

I often wonder which is more useful - someone who can do but can not speak, or someone who can speak, but can not do.

I am sitting on a bench under a staircase and I am feeling lonely because I have nobody to talk to. This is a very dark experience, and I am beginning to think that I made a big mistake by coming to China. I am lonely to start with. Take away my friends, my family, my familiar surroundings, my free time, my privacy and my food, and you will leave me a very unhappy camper. I thought this trip would be exciting, but it is highly lonely and boring. I don't find my classes interesting, and I spend more nervous energy trying to wait for the professor to spit out the thought than I do actually learning the material. Today I started zoning out which indicates to me that I am not holding in a good place.

Could this program be one of those many one-time sacrifices I have endured throughout my lifetime, law school being another one of them? I desire more than anything to find one activity I enjoy doing and then to do it very well.

Maybe it is for that reason that I value doing more than speaking. Speaking often involves a myriad range of topics. Doing can be repeated until perfection is reached. I am feeling right now that I find value in this.

However, doing often requires practice and rote, while speaking often requires thought. Should one sacrifice one given talent to develop another? This would be my dilemma because I have been given the gift of deep thought. My thinking practice is not swift and flighty like a bird, but rather, it is slow and momentous like a tank with all its power.

I wouldn't even know how my acting or singing skills are, because I have not exploited them to the best of their use in many years. But even with this dormancy, they have come to the surface in a myriad of ways, nudging me and telling me that I should be using them. I thought maybe using them to develop cantorial skills might have been the answer, but this is, if anything, not even a piece of it. What is this drive of mine? Why does it come out so fervently every time I see someone perform? How do I act on this and not throw away every other part of my life that I have carefully crafted and built? This is the question that will haunt me until I stumble until the answer.

Added 12:31 pm - I guess I wigged out after writing this because I just left class. I couldn't be in that classroom anymore. I'll consolidate and get myself together over the weekend. Next week will be better.

Returning To The Metropolitan Opera

My goal in life certainly is not fame nor recognition in the eyes of the other, although it is foreseeable that from the talents I have been given, fame could come easily -- this is certainly not the focus. (I stress this is an endowment, not a personal achievement that could be credited to me). However, what is most important is living one’s life at the top or above the threshold of what was made available to a person by their Creator; I often ask myself whether we have a duty to use these talents for the benefit of others. For some time I have thought the answer was no, but I am no longer so sure.

The passionate quality of life and woman I believe would come from living a life such as I saw last night in the Phantom of the Opera and in my childhood experiences at the MET could only come when someone is living a life that encompasses those activities that would create that kind of experience. I am doubting whether there is such a disconnect between the existence of a religious girl and the theater opera house experience, and I am starting to believe that the two can co-exist.

I have recalled the name of my former mentor from my opera days and I have looked her up online and to my surprise, she is still alive! Now, 18 years later, she is still holding auditions for the children’s chorus. I have written down her information, and it is my intent that when I return to the United States, I will at least call and explore the opportunities of being part of the adult cast at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. I should think that my childhood connections could grant me access into this mysterious forgotten world from my childhood past of opera and music.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Phantom of the Opera

I was just watching the Phantom of the Opera starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum. What struck me emotionally was how I was able to see Christine's shallow breathing when she was alone with the Phantom in his dungeon, and I could feel her arousal as she and the Phantom touched. When he touched her, her eyes went up in her head, and I could almost feel her heart beat. I would like to say that I was even able to imagine the smell of her arousal while still keeping a romantic aura to my words.

I couldn't help but to wonder whether I identified with the Phantom or with Raul, and while in my past the answer certainly would have been the Phantom, I can not say that to the exclusion of identifying with Raul.

Emotionally reflecting, there are limitations that I feel have come into my life where I wonder whether they are self-imposed or externally imposed. We know I am talking about religion. Further, I wonder if they are actual limitations or merely perceived limitations. I must always think of this and question, namely, whether religion has brought me forward or backwards. I've been working so hard to find my path within the range of permissible opportunities that I never considered that looking outside the box might shed light on the answer.

I haven't been a musical performer in many years. Yet when I was a child, I used to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, and at Columbia University, among many other places. Yes, now you know that my childhood took place in New York. I was also good, and I held lead roles in various operas and shows. I once made the front cover of the New York Times for one of the operas I held the lead role in. I bet you didn't know that about my past. So you can understand how I always had a deep connection to the musical Phantom of the Opera.

It was also the night I saw the Phantom of the Opera musical that I had my first heart break in college. I realized that night that the girl I was infatuated with wouldn't stand by my side when things got tough. Leaving the musical, the transmission in my car stopped functioning, and upon getting stuck on the bridge, she hopped a taxi and left me there with my car and my broken heart. It was a sign for many more things to come.

I suppose all I want is for someone to love me who I can love. Yet sometimes I wonder whether I will find this ploughing through the drudge path that I have been walking. I feel that I need to be somewhere else to find this love, that I need to be someone else. Just who, I have not yet figured out.

Day 8 - Proxy Access To Blog Established

I’ve been having the darnedest time trying to get on line to read and write blogs. It wasn’t until today that I found out that the government blocks blogging altogether as an evil. As far as I understand it, you can get in trouble here if you speak out against the government or any of its factions because there is a concept of reputation – not necessarily of a person, but reputation of the government – that must be preserved at all costs. So, I used an anonymous proxy router to route my web browsing outside of China, and from the foreign country, I was able to access my blog so here I am! You’re technically allowed to post, but reading blogs is blocked. I must stress that it is blocked – that does not mean that it is illegal.

We are learning at Tsinghua University's College of Law (photo above). In classes, we are learning about Chinese intellectual property at a very fast rate. I think the program has done a wonderful job at allocating the burden of us pre-reading the class materials and the professors lecturing on the materials with the presumption that we have acclimated ourselves to the materials before we step into class. I could go into details about the class, but it’s not quite the kind of topic I’d enjoy writing about. I like to keep my law life separate from my real life. Why? Because I feel that people spend too much time putting their energy and identity into what they do for a living. i.e. I am a [fill in the blank] (a lawyer, an architect, a banker, a doctor, etc.) Do you define yourself by what you do for a living? To me that seems lame.

Anyway, lots of things have happened since I got to China, so I’ll separate them into various blog entries by date. So read below to the earlier blogs… I’ll re-create them now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Please Stop the Snoring !!!

I know that I have always snored since I was a child. However, I must comment that I am thoroughly disgusted by the sound of someone snoring, and when they drool along with the snoring, I want to throw up.

It is such a terrible trait of mine that I am so critical towards people. I believe that any person who does not strive to be his or her personal best is worthless in my eyes. When I see a person who is overweight, or slothful, or lazy, I get this nasty nauseas feeling in the pit of my stomach and I want to vomit from the disgust I feel.

I must comment that I hold myself to even higher standards than I hold other people to. I am far from close to being considered at my best, but if there were a range of activity where one could measure oneself as being unproductive or as being productive, I would measure myself as pretty high up on the productive side. I say this with the self-inflated thought that I am at this level even with the mood swings and the fuzziness that overcomes me every few days or every few weeks where for a few hours at a time I turn into a space cadet.

Even further, I must confess that even though I have my headphones on as high as they will go blasting music from the Matrix, I still feel my roommate’s low-pitched vibrato snoring in the center of my chest and it bothers me just as much as would a high frequency-pitched radiation that would come from a television. If I don’t pass out from the experience, I will finish these blogs as quickly as I can and I will leave the room because I cannot stay here much longer or else I will go insane.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Black-Market Taxi Ride

I took a taxi to my hotel from the Rabbi’s house. I have a little red piece of paper with instruction to the cab driver in Chinese telling him what hotel I was staying at, and where it was. Minutes after I got into the cab, I knew that I was in trouble.

I read in the Frommer’s guidebook to Beijing that cab drivers are required by law to keep their meters in clear sight of the passenger. Also, they are also required to prominently display their licenses. A minute after getting into the cab after a day of feeling weak and ill, the taxi driver stopped the car, turned to me, and spoke to me in Chinese. I could see in his eyes that he was dishonest. Without thinking, I said to him “wa boh huey shwa Poh Tong Wa,” which means “I don’t speak Mandarin”. I was thinking that I should have kept my mouth shut.

He resumed driving and immediately upon looking, I saw that his meter was on the floor and the numbers were partially covered by a cloth, which meant that this driver was dishonest. I looked at the dashboard and I noticed that there was no license displayed, and I realized that I was in a black-market taxi cab. These cabs are driven by unlicensed drivers, and are known for cheating customers from driving around in circles and taking the most expensive route, the Fourth Ring Road, the largest road which circled the city of Beijing and racked up the mileage so they could charge more.

Knowing that I was about to be cheated, I could do nothing except pray that it wouldn’t be by too much, and that I would be safe. I chuckled to myself when I saw him turn off of the highway and exit onto the Fourth Ring Road. “Here we go, I'm about to be taken for a ride. It’s only money,” I thought. I was happy when I got back to the hotel in one piece.

Day 6 - Blessing the Congregation

I spent most of Tuesday on either the floor of a bathroom looking up at the ceiling, or in a bed. I woke up in the morning feeling my stomach bubbling, and I was trying to figure out why. Whether it was overwhelming amount of delicious dairy food from Shavuous or because I woke up in the middle of the night and accidentally got a drink of water from the sink forgetting that I was in China, nevertheless, I woke up as ill as I can imagine ever being.

The thing that got me out of bed was my discussion with the Rabbi in the morning when he told me that I didn’t have to get out of bed for davening (praying) if I felt as ill as I did. The thought that occupied my mind was that if we had a minyan (quorum), then I would be permitted to do the mitzvah (commandment) of duchaning (blessing the congregation). This is a birthright of mine, as I have been born into the priesthood as being a Cohen, the son of Aaron. As such, on high holidays, ritualistically, we bless the congregation.

I personally didn’t have the need or the desire to do the mitzvah, but I knew that without me, the congregation could not be blessed because I was the only individual in the congregation that was a Cohen. The problem is that in order to be eligible to go up and bless the congregation, I read in the Kitzur Shulchan Auruch (Abridged Jewish Code) that the Cohen had to daven the Shema and the Amidah with the congregation in order to later bless the congregation during Mussaf. However, I could barely stand because I was sick from Chinese food or water poisoning.

I managed to pull myself out of bed and when I tried to throw up, nothing came out except for pieces of vegetables from the night before. I started to daven, and when it came time for the repetition for the Amidah, we didn’t have a minyan (quorum) so the Rabbi decided to walk to the Israeli Consulate to get a 10th guy. I figured since it was close to 92 degrees outside, if I walked with him, I would sweat out whatever it was that was ailing me.

We got our tenth guy, and an eleventh. The problem was that as soon as I walked inside, I needed to drink a coke or I would pass out because I started dripping sweat profusely as soon as I got inside. Even after drinking the coke, I was still not feeling good – I was dizzy by this point. We said the Torah portion, and when it came time to do Mussaf, I stood with the congregation and I prayed everything I was supposed to.

While the congregation davened Yizkor in remembrance of souls who have departed, instead of going outside, I went into the bathroom to try to vomit, but nothing would come out. I sat on the cold floor and thought that I would not be able to duchen. When everyone came back into the shul, I joined them and davened Mussaf. I was standing two feet in front of the Aron HaKodesh (where they keep the Torah) and at chazaras ha’shaatz (the repetition of the Amidah prayer), as soon as we started to say "Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh," vomit lurched from my innards and I almost shot vomit out at the Aron. Knowing that even though I was standing in front of G-d, I grabbed my mouth and ran across the women’s section into the bathroom and literally a gallon or so of vomit escaped from my body. I couldn’t believe that much was inside of me.

I was looking into the mirror and twirling my pointing finger inside sink (now filled with vomit) with the water running trying to hasten the vomit going down the drain. I thought to myself, "This is it. With all my efforts to fulfill my role as a Cohen, I have lost the chance and I have let down the congregation." I was no longer going to bless the congregation because I thought there would be no time to clean myself up, get better, and to take off my shoes and approach the area from where I would duchen.

Surprisingly enough, I remembered something my Rabbi told me once, namely that a person is given the power to act according to what he is. "I am a Cohen," I thought. "It is my identity to bless the congregation. This was a duty that has been handed down to me from G-d. If I am truly a Cohen, then I should get the strength to do this because this is who I am; this is my nature."

Immediately all feelings of illness subsided, and I felt shockingly fine. I washed the vomit off of my beard, cleaned myself off, and took off my shoes. As I exited the bathroom, I instructed one of the women not to let anyone go into the bathroom or the smell of vomit might knock them out.

I put on a Talis (a prayer shawl), approached the front of the congregation, and I signaled to the Rabbi that I was ready to go. I was surprised how good everything felt and how clear my voice was as I duchened. It sounded almost magical, even to me. I did the whole thing, finished the davening, and put my shoes back on.

As soon as the service was over, I immediately felt sick and weak again. I forced myself to say Kiddush (blessing over wine) and to have some food, and I went upstairs to take a shower. After laying on the bathroom floor and looking up at the ceiling again for around twenty minutes feeling ill, I managed to force myself to get into the shower. Afterwards, I spent some time with the Rabbi’s children whereas one read me a story, and then I went downstairs to sleep until after nightfall.

Avoiding feeling excitement that I did the mitzvah of duchening, I was more happy that the congregation got blessed. I rehearsed the events of the day in my head a few more times, and I could not help but to feel in awe of the experience of getting well just in time to bless the congregation.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Day 4 - Meeting American "Ex-Patriots"

This next post will be difficult to create because there were so many days and so many experiences that encompassed this entry. After arriving in China on Thursday evening, the next day I took a trip to the local Rabbi for Shabbos and Shavuous.

When I entered the office, there was a guy working on printing a brochure for the upcoming holiday. I was surprised to hear him refer to himself as an “ex-pat,” slang for an ex-patriot, or one whose family is an a citizen of one country, but who works, lives, and who raises his family in another country. China is full of these kinds of families, as it has been explained to me. The children of these families grow up speaking multiple languages. The teenager I was speaking to spoke Chinese and English, and I thought it was very cute that the Rabbi’s youngest daughter spoke Yiddish, Chinese, Hebrew, and English as her first language.

I found it mesmerizing how most of these people came to China after college or law school because they enjoyed the culture, specifically how China is so much more value-oriented than the high-powered rat-race you’ll find in the United States. I made many connections with many attorneys who were practicing international IP law in China. It seems like I am in the right field.

An interesting occurrence was that at one of the dinners, one of the many guests (there were over sixty) was speaking to this guy from the office. He cracked a joke which in my opinion had truth to it. This guy was “the Napster” kind of techie that you would find in the modern-day computer-hacker kind of movies. He said, “I’m going to go for my MBA in the fall, then I will ask you for a job.” The funny truth to that statement is that the fathers of these ex-pats are the CFO’s and high powered executives of the international branches of companies such as IBM, Intel, and Microsoft. It makes sense that the education and upbringing of these children would naturally lead them to themselves be the next generation of executives. This is the life that they live. I found this to be fascinating.

Friday, June 10, 2005

China, Beijing, Day 1.

Dear Diary,

I made it to China last night. I am staying in Beijing for a five-week law program. I will be learning Chinese Intellectual Property and Patent Law. This is very exciting for me because this will be my first break from the past two years of generic law classes, and this will be my first chance to specialize in a developing niche field so that I won't be just another patent attorney.

The morning before I left to the airport, and all through the airplane ride, I was listening to a Pimsleur crash course in Mandarin. Also, I purchased a phonetics course which gave me many nouns [and their word associations so that I can memorize them easily (just my style)] to build my Chinese vocabulary. Although this phonetics course is fun for me, I knew that having a grasp of only nouns would only get me so far. This is why my focus is on the sentance structure and conversational Mandarin as taught by Pimsleur; I feel that this is the key to developing a foundation in, and actually speaking, Mandarin.

I had a scare, however. After many hours of learning, I decided to try out my Mandarin on a Chinese couple sitting next to me. The problem was that after all my effort, they didn't understand a word I was saying. However, I was very confident in what I learned, and I was sure that I heard and replicated the words properly; it occurred to me to ask them if they speak Mandarin; to my relief and disappointment, they said they didn’t speak Mandarin -- they spoke some other Asian language which sounded to me to be Cantonese. Just my luck. So I spent the next few hours learning words and trying them on people around the plane. The stewardesses thought it was cute that I was learning their language. They helped me out with the pronunciations when I got them wrong.

The arrival to China was very quick and the plane ride was surprisingly short. China Air had kosher food for me prepared, and the meals were delicious. One confusion I had was that we were supposed to count the Omer (a Torah commandment) at night. However, the problem was that it seemed like it was never night no matter where and when we were. I couldn't understand it because my rabbi and I figured it out beforehand that I would count the 46th day of the Omer on the plane at night, and then I would count the 47th day of the Omer after nightfall when I arrived in China. Problem! It was never night time on the plane! The sun was with us the whole time, as we flew west instead of east as planned.

Upon landing in Beijing, I had learned enough Mandarin to convince someone who was Chinese to speak to me in English. I also knew how to talk about talking the language and to discuss where I am from and how proficient or how terrible I was at speaking the language. I changed my currency at the airport, and I found a taxi which brought me to my hotel. Prior to my trip, I had prepared for me in written Mandarin the name of the hotel that I was staying at, and the directions to the hotel. All I did when I entered the taxi was give him this pre-printed card and everything else was smooth sailing. I've never experienced anything so easy.

One thing that was so interesting was my discussion with the taxi driver on the way to the hotel. He was asking me questions and as best I could, I was trying to answer them. When he asked me what I do for work, however, I tried to explain to him that I was studying to become a lawyer. But when he didn't understand me, I figured I'll have fun and I’ll make things up based on the words I learned on the plane. I told him among other things that I was a doctor. I felt so excited with this newfound ability to make up a new identity because 1) he'd never know the difference, 2) I gave him an answer to his question, 3) I was actually speaking with him in Mandarin, and 4) it was just chit chat that was never going to lead anywhere, so no harm done.

While in the taxi, I looked out the window (chu’ang) and I saw how everything was in Chinese neon letters, and I understood none of it except for the Honda dealership and the various companies that also had their Company names in English. As I was looking around, I realized that I was not in Kansas any more. I felt like James Bond, a spy in a foreign country. I saw police officers, and I visualized myself eluding them while they fired loaded weapons at me. I am so excited to be here!

One thing that spooked me a bit -- at the airport, already someone wanted to cheat me by having me step off the taxi line and go with him in his car. A rabbi stopped him and told me not to go with anyone except for those cars on the taxi line that the police guards instruct me to get in to. Yes, the first person I accidentally bumped into when I got to Beijing was the rabbi I will be staying at tonight for Shabbos and Shavuous (a Jewish festival).

A few minutes later, a few police officers surrounded me with concern and stood behind me and started pointing to something on my back. I thought it was the tzitzis (the fringes that came out from my shirt). When I asked if the tzitzis were what they were talking about, they got serious and put my right hand behind my back. I was certain I was about to be arrested for something. When they moved my hand over the back of my shirt, I felt something wet. I looked at my hands, and they looked all bloody. When I smelled them, I realized that it was ketchup. How I got ketchup on my back I have no idea, but I'll take that any day rather than getting arrested in a foreign communist government. They are still communist, no? Anyway, they got me napkins and cleaned me up, and I got into the taxi to head to the hotel.

I spent most of this morning setting up the computer, writing people e-mails, playing with the television (I've never seen anything so boring as the channels they have here), and unpacking. I also unpacked my portable steamer and so I spent around two hours ironing my suits and my shirts that were creased during the flight. The only thing is that the little portable steamer kept running out of water. I've been promising myself a shower since I got here, but I've been too busy just getting things ready for Shabbos (the Sabbath), which means that I need to leave to the rabbi's house in four hours.

During these next few hours, I will shower, I will pack my weekend bag, and I will try to get as much of the paper done as I can. I fear that it will be due any day now. Lastly, the sink water is supposedly poison, so we are supposed to buy bottled water. I found a Brita water boiler to make tea; it had a note on it “for boiling water for drinking only”. I hope this should be enough to boil out the bad stuff. With this, I am drinking Jasmine tea which tastes to me to be more like perfume than a tea, but nevertheless, it is a kosher and I am thirsty like you cannot imagine.

Have a wonderful Shabbos, and a chag sameach. May you mekabel the Torah b’simcha u’b’pnimius.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Emphasizing Empiricism in Analysis of Phenomena

[This is a reply to a comment made to the previous journal entry entitled "Why natural is not necessarily good". It is suggested that if the contents of this message are not understandable, please go back and read the previous article, its comments and then come back and read this response.]


I'll give you two answers to your comment. I believe that there are a myriad amount of "spiritual" experiences one can have, and that sometimes it is a bad idea to link it to a fad with a name on it. Astral travel, remote viewing, ESP, telepathy, hypnosis, etc. are all topics which I am cautious around because they have gotten intertwined and tainted by hokey new-age false enlightenment undertones with preachers and weird people talking about and boasting experiences they probably did not have. However, with your experience of not being able to breath and feeling that you went to far out, I do believe that you experienced what you describe, and my opinion upfront is that instead of stopping, your fearful experience could have been an obstacle in the path of your growth, and you should work through it and break past it instead of stopping and talking about a mystical experience you once had. If what you say is true and you were able to get that far, then stopping there was a waste of the experience and you have a duty to see how far you can grow and to see how far you can push the limits of your experience.

As for the fear of going too far, you seldom hear of people dying because they had a good meditative experience. Plus, injecting a bit of chassidus (Jewish mysticism) into our conversation, your animal soul is too attached to life and the physical world to let you go too far out and if you achieved that kind of level where you did not stop where you should, your animal soul would quickly pull you back to reality because it desires and is attached to the pleasures of the physical world as if it were addicted to cocaine.

Regarding the cloud busting, the telepathy attempts from past journal entries, and the other things that I explore despite the fear of sounding like a flake, as religious and as in touch with spirituality as I am, I believe that there are myriad amounts of experiences that one can have, and when playing with these forces [if I were to play with these forces], I would try to keep spirituality and non-empirical explanations out of the picture while trying to understand what is the real, physical mechanism underlying the experience.

I don't like the fact that I am able to do what I have done with clouds, or the fact that the girl with whom I went on a shidduch date was able to repeat back to me my thoughts during that first time I tried to make mental contact. These things make me uncomfortable because I do not understand them and I do not necessarily believe in them. Further, I do not believe that it is useful to play around with these experiences unless one can check or measure his or her results against some tangible result. This is why I videotaped the cloud experience on the five separate occasions and it is why I demonstrated in confidentiality the cloud-busting act in front of various people at different times and under varying circumstances to make sure they were all seeing the same thing that I was. That way, I would not fool myself into imagining that I have special powers that I really do not have.

In the previous post, the analysis of the morality of busting a cloud (if it is indeed real because after all the recordings, I remain skeptical until I can find an answer and I am not convinced that this is a spiritual feat of holiness because of my impure state) and the potential religious ramifications of controlling angelic forces and entities were simply discussed for the sake of expounding the concept that just because something is natural does not make it free game to use and abuse, even if it is for moral purposes. I analyzed this from three levels -- the practical, the moral, and the religious. To allay your concern that I would go into a snowball effect analysis, in playing with this sort of thing, I would first learn what I am doing and I would find a real explanation that could be tested and repeated by someone else to validate that it is actually real, then I would wonder about the moral ramifications, and then I would finish the mental checklist to see if there might be religious ramifications for those acts, such as those comprising the discussion about killing angels and messing with their instructions. However, this talk of angels and kabbalah is a far cry from Jewish law, and would ordinarily not even enter my thoughts because I am not at the level where I can understand those kinds of teachings and thus I would rely on the halachas (Jewish laws) that have been handed down to us from generation to generation from the time where the Torah was given at Mount Sinai until today. These laws have not changed, and the commandments today are exactly the same as they were back then.

A slight note of caution; Rowan, I wouldn't want you to try it and fail, and then to come up with the conclusion that you don't have "the power", because the point that I have been stressing all along is that I believe that this is NOT a power one has, but rather, it is a relationship between you and the reality that is already here -- a muscle that is developed, if you will -- that can be scientifically analyzed and figured out using laws of nature that may or may not yet be discovered. Under this same logic, I cower at the thought that I am somehow special or gifted with some spiritual talent that other people do not have because that would imply that I had a responsibility and a duty to use or to abstain from using that talent until the fated time approached. I don't like the idea of this kind of responsibility and I wouldn't want it.

In your discussion about G-d, the sanctuary, and the ant farm, the facts you described do lend themselves to the thought that it is not always the nature of the object that is important, but rather how one uses the object (the action coupled with the intention of the actor) that elevates it to holiness or that dumps it into the depths of impurity. You are discussing what is commonly referred to as klipahs nogah (literally, neutral impurity) which is a concept in Chassidus.

Also, to prevent you from diminishing your own religious quality of life and your connection with your Creator, be careful about what you attribute to "He" (being G-d), versus what you attribute to the "they" (being organized society, its institutions, and dogma). [If you are an athiest, then feel free to supplement "G-d" for "nature" or "science" although a thoughtful person usually does not hold this kind of belief; even the nobel prized physicist who founded the Big Bang Theory mentioned in his studies that as some point before the bang, someone had to turn on the lights and flip the switch.] It is sometimes too easy to throw the good away with the bad because one misinterprets a commandment by G-d as being a constraint instituted by the "they" in power, rather than by "He". What "He" decrees is sacred and must be followed at all costs, even if one's life depended on it. The trick in life, especially with organized religions branching off from each other and forming their own man-made, priest-enforced belief systems, is for each person involved in the mud of varying beliefs to sift through the dogma and the controls to reveal the G-dliness within the seas of misinformation and controls that are preached to the masses.

I hope that I have not stepped on you in any way by expressing my understanding of these events, and I want to posit my suspicion that these things are not magical, but rather, they are undiscovered physical phenomena. We are blessed with a world that acts upon laws of nature and rules. Every morning when I wake up, I thank G-d for returning my soul to my body, and I say a blessing thanking G-d for spreading the land above the waters so that I have a floor under my feet, among other things.

We as human beings have been placed in the lowest, most physical of all the spiritual words in existence. In our world, even spiritual concepts such as chesed (love) and gevurah (strength) [or expansion and constriction] find their way into the sweet taste of a grain of sugar or a spicy and sharp taste of a hot pepper. This is the greatest benefit to us living in this lowest world, namely that things manifest themselves as physical entities, processes and mechanisms. For this reason, when I see a cloud disappear because I will it, I smile because deep inside I understand that there must be a tangible reason and a process for it. This is both the blessing and the curse of science –- it detracts from the spiritual by explaining the physical manifestations of the spiritual. Unfortunately, if one only looks at the physical, he misses the bigger picture and places himself within a box ruled by morality, ethics, and "do onto others" theories. This would indeed be a lonely, meaningless existence.

Why natural is not necessarily good.

Rowan and Lisa,

Your comments inspired me to expound on a few thoughts discussing the reasons why it might not be proper to play with cloud formations, even if that skill has been made available to me and I hope to people in general. I would hate to have an ability that I didn't know how to use -- that would mess with my head on many levels. I hold the belief that anything that I experience, you too can experience because there is something objective out there that we as human beings can touch, namely the physical world. This world has rules of nature, and if one person has found a way to bend them, then others can too.

The messianic concept of "the One", depicted in modern cinematics as the character of "Neo" from The Matrix makes sense to me. However, because of all of the hypocracy and controversy around who is the messiah, and who can be the messiah, and the religious battles and politics involved between the various sects, other than learning the basics, I have left the worrying about the details of those teachings to someone else who actually gives a damn. As far as I am concerned, when the messiah comes, we'll know it, [it will be on CNN,] and I will follow whoever he or she turns out to be to fulfill G-d's destiny. [My apologies for stepping on your beliefs if some of you feel he has already come; so in reading this, please feel free to adjust my words of the coming of the messiah to the second coming to fit your beliefs, however it is not relevant to this post.] As we do get closer to the times of Moshiach (Hebrew for the messiah), I do believe that goodness and spirituality will become more revealed and more powerful in our physical world, and similarly to keep the balance, evil will also become more powerful and the pulls toward evil will become more attractive to us than good.

With regard to busting clouds and its ramifications, I also have the belief that people as a whole can evolve to understand how to interact more intimately with their surroundings. I believe in a messiah that will usher us into the next level of existence where spirituality is revealed to us and we are no longer in a state of exile from G-d. However, I fiercely do not believe that the messiah could be an ordinary sinner like me who goes around busting clouds as if he were popping balloons and denying G-ds truth by feeling depressed [a clear testimony that on some level, I don't believe that G-d's will is the way I would have done it,] and as far as I know, only a holy person or a messiah can alter physicality, and that person is not me. Therefore, I conclude that there must be a scientific explanation that is accessible to everybody because I am certainly nobody special. Trust me on this one.

In your comments to the post on melting clouds, it seems that both of you are saying that if it can be done, and it is natural, then it must be a good thing. Immediately I know that you sense that the logic in this statement is flawed.

Just because something is available to one's use does not make it proper to use it. For example, I know where I can get drugs and where I can find a prostitute. Sex and pleasure are natural things, just as it would be natural to act on a physical attraction between two people, even if one or both of them married to someone else.

Morality, based on logic and reason, tells us whether something is good or not, specifically based on the focus of whether we hurt other people or ourselves in the act. Morally, acting on a physical desire when one is married and arguably before one is married harms the relationship between the husband and wife, and just as taking cocaine would be immoral because it harms the individual, logically there can be nothing harmful about breaking apart a cloud if it is possible.

But what if when we act, we send out a signal for other beings and non-physical entities to perceive and to somehow attach to our acts and influence our world or to do damage to our souls by the fact that we opened ourselves up by doing this arguably supernatural act?

We don't know for sure about *anything* that goes on outside the boundaries of physicality, and thus we do not know the effects of our actions on other levels. For example, I remember reading once in passing in some kabbalistic teaching that behind every cloud, there is an angel that was sent by our Creator with a purpose. Obviously not knowing what that means, it is highly possible that if that is literally true (which it might be), it could be possible that we are killing an angel each time we dissolve a cloud.

How? Some people have the source of their souls from various worlds, and as it is explained in kabbalah, those whose souls are from higher worlds are given the obedience and the respect from those entities that have the source of their souls in lower worlds. Therefore, one who's soul has its source in the world of Beriah can control angels, who have their source in the lower world of Yetzirah. [Don't worry about the names or the higherarchy, just follow the logic.] So hypothetically if we do kill an angel by dissolving its cloud, or even if we change or interfere with its mission by taking over the movement of the cloud, don't you think that the angel might get upset if it had the capability to get upset? Further, if there is truth to this statement, don't you think by interfering with the natural course of the universe you might upset the entity (G-d or otherwise) that sent that angel to do that specific task?

You could say that you don't believe in angels, but then under that logic, you wouldn't believe that a person can influence the creation or the destruction of a cloud that is hundreds or thousands of feet away. Further, if there is some scientific explanation, such as (for example) what was posited by Alexander Lowen, M.D. (later accused of being a quack) in his book Bioenergetics as being some form of Argon energy, whatever that might be, and this connection can be established and scientifically proven, then it could be reasonable to discount the fear of the spiritual, moral, or religious ramifications of one's act.

However, even though this whole scenario about the angels could have been fabricated, especially because I cannot remember where I read or heard it and I could have easily misunderstood something out of its context, nevertheless, if it were written about in kabbalah and the literal interpretation about the angels and the clouds are the proper interpretation, then from a religious point of view, this would need to be something that must be taken seriously.

Without going into reasons why scholarly writings are true because they follow a pre-ordained method and formula which determines how Torah may and may not be interpreted and expounded, nevertheless, as a Jew, we are supposed to take everything that was written seriously, even if it forces us to keep in mind that the world might have been created in seven literal days or that there was a man named Noah who built an ark and that there was a great flood where it rained for forty days, and that the world is really only 5765 years old as opposed to science's claim that it is millions of years old. These are all things that a person who believes in the truth of G-d, the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and the Prophets must take seriously.

For that reason, because something is natural or because it can be done without exerting unusual effort does not mean that it is moral or that it is the proper way to act, especially if there is a religious prohibition placed on top of that act. These are the thoughts I keep in my mind when I act, because I believe that these thoughts on many levels reflect humanity's understanding of truth. Through my weaknesses and the pull of my desires to break religious and sometimes moral and often legal law (i.e. watch me at a red light on a deserted road at 2 a.m.), I hope that one day I will have the strength to follow these laws without an internal war and without conflicting desires to do wrong to myself, to my soul, and to others.