Making It Personal

In the days before the plethora of women’s magazines burst onto the scene to enrich our lives, a small group of us at the old Targum Press created something called Horizons, The Jewish Family Journal. This was the first publication in the world of frum literature that offered women a place to publish their personal essays and stories. It was a place where women could read about the lives of others with whom they could laugh and cry, sympathize and relate. By and large, men-oriented publications tend to be about ideas. We women prefer to make things personal.

The outpouring of submissions and fervent flow of grateful feedback from readers were astounding. It was as if until then women had been living in isolated cottages with their noses pressed wistfully to the window, hoping for a glimpse of a friendly passer-by. Horizons, and all the wonderful publications that came after, offered such a window, a glimpse into the lives and souls of our sisters scattered across the globe.

It was a concept whose time had come. If the Industrial Revolution turned us all into tiny cogs in the huge, impersonal machine of progress, the advent of the Digital Age has reduced us even further. Whereas we used to live in small towns with only a limited number of lives intersecting with our own, today we are inundated with millions and even billions of lives that can impinge upon ours at the touch of a button. Conscious of the press of humanity that reduces our individual importance to that of a speck of sand on the beach, we have risen up in protest and cried, “See me! Hear me! I have a story that matters!”

Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky once distributed a series of recordings on the topic of kiruv, which I listened to with pleasure. One point he made was that in the past, if you wanted to be mekarev an alienated Jew, you had to argue philosophically with him. You had to engage his mind and convince him, intellectually, of the truth of what you were trying to teach him. Today, in contrast, the route is through the person’s heart.

Every kiruv professional worth his salt knows the drill. Engage the emotions. Bring the prospective returnee into your home; be his friend and his personal mentor. The more personal you make it, the smoother the process goes. Our bewildered tinokos shenishba do not, as a rule, yearn for deep, intellectual discussions to sway their minds. What they really want is an arm around the shoulder, a friendly smile, a listening ear. A genuine interest in who they are and what makes them tick. In this day and age, philosophy has flown out the window.

What is this day and age? Our Sages compare the scope of Jewish history to a human body, with Adam Horishon at the crown of the head and us, at the ikvesa demoshicha, at the very bottom. The soles of a person’s feet are thick and desensitized. As Rabbi Akiva Tatz has often said, the only thing that elicits a strong reaction at the feet is a good tickle. Tickle the soles, and we will laugh.

We live in an age when entertainment is paramount. We enjoy sitting back and being amused. We love to laugh. If that laughter is sometimes a little shallow or empty, that is the curse of our age. The bottoms of the feet, it seems, don’t have the capacity for much more.

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The “personal” aspect has crept into many others areas of our lives apart from Jewish literature and kiruv. A modern-day understanding of the child’s psyche has taught us how crucial it is to pay attention to our offspring. Whether this means ten minutes of playing or talking together each evening, or a daylong parent-child outing, we’ve found that this sort of concentrated attention acts like water on a wilting plant. Parents are no longer the aloof role models they once were, dignified and rather remote. These days, parents get down on all fours to play with their little ones. They read books to them and take them out for ice cream and try to get inside those sweet little heads to enter the child’s world. We make it personal.

Teachers have been adopting this model as well. It’s not unusual these days to see a rebbi tossing a ball with his students at recess or schmoozing with them at lunch. We’ve come to understand that as important as the wealth of information and skills is, human contact helps the child be open to receive it.

I am lucky enough to have a personal example of this in my life. My son, a wonderful second-grade rebbi, does not regard each new class as a collection of little machines into which he must insert the requisite quantity of information over the course of the year. Rather, he makes it his business to get to know each student from the inside out. He studies their personalities, talks with them and tries to figure out the best way to reach them. By opening his heart to them, he helps open their hearts to Torah. He has learned the inestimable value of making it personal.

My husband is a longtime rebbi, too, with an inimitable style of his own. Years ago, I used to feel uncomfortable with the way he would use personal anecdotes to help explain a concept to his middle-school and high-school students. As a private person, I preferred to compartmentalize my personal life in one box, my professional life in another. My husband, however, being the amazing ba’al masbir that he is, used every tool he could find to drive his point home to the young minds under his care. If a personal story was the best example he could find, then he would use it without a qualm. And his students were the richer for it.

Still, I resisted the idea for a long time. I chose to transmit the messages of my mind and heart through fictional stories rather than true-life anecdotes. With fiction, it’s possible to shape a character or a story line to suit your message.

Over the years, however, I’ve slowly come around to my husband’s point of view. In literature, in the classroom, and at home, there’s nothing quite as effective and as relatable as the personal touch. This is why, at long last, I decided to start writing these columns, to take my messages and offer them directly, often through the use of personal episodes, instead of cloaking them in fiction.

I still believe that fiction is a marvelous way to transmit important ideas through the vehicle of a thoroughly enjoyable story. I love crafting such stories and will be’ezras Hashem continue doing so. But you can’t get away from the fact that we’re living in a world where people crave the personal touch.

Privacy is a commodity to be cherished, and we have to be careful in choosing where and how we connect. Keeping that in mind, however, there’s no gainsaying the power of direct, heart-to-heart communication. So let’s hear it for making it personal!