There was recently an article written about me in Mishpacha Magazine and, even more recently, in Mkor Rishon. I was waiting for a resulting attack of hubris, some dangerous challenge to the fine balance of my self-perception. Either I missed it and it is now embedded in my ego as a Trojan horse virus, or my ego shrugged this off as an unworthy challenger. I could be wrong, but I tend to feel that me ego is safe this time. I reviewed the article before it was published but never actually saw it in print. The author, a very enthusiastic woman by the name of Sara Fachter, seemed to think it was a good article. I'll be very pleased to take her word for it. The photographer, Miri, was amazing fun to work with and has a true artist's neshama. But I can't be motivated to read an article about me. If I have any trouble interpreting what I see in the mirror, my wife and children, my friends, my chevruta, and my rabbi, will set me straight.
Let me tell you (yet another) Purim story. Once, many years ago, Bat Ayin Yeshiva was in the midst of one of its epic Purim feasts, the kind that need to be cleaned up with a firehose and medium sized tractor. My dear friend Hillel grabbed me by the shirt and began to calmly explain to me who I was and what kind of person I am. I was speechless, open-mouth shocked. I don't remember what he said, though I am sure it was poignant and accurate. I was shocked that someone had noticed that underneath all my blustering and misguided attempts at acting like a person, there really was a me. I wasn't sure I existed and here was someone lecturing me on the finer details of who I was.
Part of my tshuva process was stripping away handy self-definitions meant to satisfy the masses. Every American knows that the second question a stranger will ask you is "What do you do?". The first question, asked out of politeness, is your name. If you are at a social gathering and someone asks those two questions, try checking if they remember the answers an hour later. Most people will have forgotten your name, but your occupation is probably embedded in their memory. I am afraid that society is pushing us into molds. It used to be that every person would carve out a unique path in their career. I was horrified to discover that there is now a college degree in medical billing. My brother is an engineer. I feel that his fixing engines when he was a teen has a lot more to do with that than his college degree. People cannot be quantified, but the "system" tries. I am a chef so I like to taste people. Each one tastes different, even if the titles are the same. I don't mean that I introduce myself by licking total strangers. That would be unhygienic, socially problematic and possibly illegal in many states. What I mean is that taste is unquantifiable, organic, and unique. It is also the sense that requires itnimate personal contact and involvement. You internalize the experience.
When I first moved to Israel, I arrived at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. I proudly anounced that I was a classically trained French chef to everyone who would listen. The only ones willing to listen were the dairy cows because a kibbutz needs a chef like a snake needs suspenders. My epiphany came from the mouth of Menachem Hess, a seventy year old German immigrant who could physically outwork me. One day, after making a total mess of the morning feeding of the baby calves, I went on a tirade, saying that I was a chef and not built for this. He turned to me and said "The cows don't care who you think you are. You have two arms and two legs and are a man and a Jew, like God created you. No more and no less. The cows are hungry, so feed them." That shattered me. It had been so comforting to always pigeon hole myself. I am a chef and I am pretty good at it. Anything I am bad at that doesn't include being a a chef is not my problem. Well, all of a sudden I was faced with a new problem. I was only a chef when making an ommellete. When the cows are hungry, I need to be a dairy farmer. I need to be a husband. More specifically, I need to be a husband to my wife. God gave me children so that I could be their father. And each one of them brings out a different father hidden inside of me.
Leaving the kitchen was a form of suicide, but at the same time it was a rebirth. I could no longer define myself as only a chef. But, to be honest, I feel that so many people hide behind their own self definitions. I have met so many people who try to pawn themselves off as average. They have quick and easily understood titles. And they try to limit it to one title, usually their job. But I love stories. Book titles don't satisfy me. Every person I meet is a new story waiting to be told, unique and impossible to plaigarize.
One of the first phrases I learned in my tshuva process that rang true was, "Many ships cross the ocean, but no one can follow the other because they don't leave trails." I don't know where youve been, and even if I did, I couldn't possibly know what that was for you. And the only reason we met was because I needed to know that.