Gefilte Fish and Kiruv

The other day, Computer Cowboy took me out for dinner. We chose an  Eastern European restaurant, where the service is excellent, where the prices are fair, and where the offerings consist of the sort of comestibles my grandparents would have eaten had they not been poor farmers in Belarus and Romania.


I ordered p’tacha, calves foot jelly, for an appetizer. My life partner, in the least, was put off by my selection. Yet, that man eats, nearly every Shabbot, ocean creatures that are chopped up, mixed together, and then jellied, i.e. he sups readily on gefilte fish.


Whereas I dined, for the first time in probably ten years, on my dish of fashioned aspic, the man chows down, nearly every seven days, on minced, emulsified sea bird. Aficionados consider such treats, as the one he prefers, akin to or superior to quenelles and kamaboko. Skeptics consider such tenders repulsive.


Think about it; we Ashkenazim tout the deliciousness of chopped pieces of water critters, combined with unidentifiable snips of carbohydrates, spices, and fat. We take this edible from glass pots, serve it up in fancy plates, and then consider ourselves to have cornered taste and tradition.


My point is not so much the way in which the appetizer, which is dear to my spouse, or in which calves foot jelly, which is a rare indulgence for me, are cooked or are served, or why either item is not universally appreciated, but that what’s appealing to one Jew might be disgusting to another. It’s dumb to judge people according to their preference, or lack thereof, for dead bits of fin or for gelatinous portions of oxen.


We ought to, in addition, to extend this analogy beyond the pantry. Specifically, what works in outreach for some individuals is problematic for others and vice versa.


Every middah granted by Hashem can be used to serve Hashem. Some people, comparable to Rav Shlomo Carlebach, serve with song. Some people make Yiddishkeit more succulent by bringing sports to the fore. Still other people use theatre, or cooking, to create transcendental languages, to fabricate routes to increased understanding.


Given that there is no prophecy in our generation, no person can know which individual, at which moment, needs our experiences, or which individual, at which moment, might benefit from them. Similarly, it is impossible for any of us to know which of our talents is the one any particular Jew needs in order to feel cozier with The Almighty.


Yearning, which stems from each of our unique pintele Yidden, helps us secure our millennium-long chain. Such longing can and ought to grow from many things. The experiences we offer or undergo might or might not include: attending Agudah conferences, guesting at Borrow Park weddings, enjoying the company of friends who do not laugh, too much, when we change napkins between Shabbot fish and meat courses, enjoying the company of friends who DO laugh, a lot, when we refuse "to cut" our first sheitels, being welcomed to "special programs" on how to make Kiddush, being invited to represent our day schools on Torah Bowl teams, getting accepted into well-regarded hesder yeshivot, performing sherut leumi in Jerusalem’s Old City, and on and on.


It remains the case that transferring our heritage might also involve: not questioning why a Yom Tov guest wears facial piercings, making bilingual siddurim available for Shabbot visitors, talking late into the night, on weekdays, with friends whose questions deserve privacy, encouraging newbies to help pack shalach manot baskets for community elderly, building towering menorahs from plastic children’s toys, inviting all comers to sit in our sukkahs, having challah bakeoffs, and much, much more. There is an abundance of ways to form those vital kesherim.


Furthermore, sharing our wealth is not about numbers. Avodah Hashem is not about verifying, before acting, that our efforts will glean "success."  Rather, our contributions need to focus on us performing at slightly better than our best.


Just as the Maccabees served by heart and not by number, just as Rabbi Akiva passed his heritage through a mere handful of scholars, not through his initial following of 24,000 learned individuals, just as Naomi and Ruth were singular persons, not vast coteries of women, and just as Moshiach will serve through the greatness of smallness, Am Yisrael  honors the partnership we cemented at Har Sinai not by promising magnificent feats to HaKodesh Baruch Hu, but by accepting the Torah. Our intention remains that we embrace the totality of our passageway and only thereafter learn (or teach) its details.


Jewish history has never been one of grand paths to predicted results. Whenever we''ve tried to control outcome, we''ve sacrifice b’tochen, we''ve sacrificed one of our most important means of linking to The Aibishter. Letting The Boss worry about the results of our hard work is a good ta''am for kiruv as well as is a sign of a lev tov. We are keen to perform the first and we are keen to possess the second.


People hunt for religious connections not because they desire more of what they already possess in their life, but because they want to fill in deeply sensed gaps. No more does the successful business person seek, from other Jews, a lecture on how to play the stock market than the teen with the tie-dyed hair searches for antidotes to hangovers. Yet, the former probably would be highly interested in shiurim about the laws of commerce. The latter, equally, would be a good candidate for a tisch concentrating on the need to guard the wellbeing of one’s body and soul. Whether or not either of those persons is partial to gefilte fish of calves foot jelly may or may not be important.


In the long run, some Jews approach Torah through beautiful art. Others hear their internal, silver trumpets resound when they witness a simple act of kindness. No matter the derech that takes Jews home, and no matter the number of Jews making that particular journey, the modes of kiruv, which they embrace, are not to be judged. Like my husband and my respective likings for appetizers, no invitation to the bigger meal, per say, is wrong.