Shtick

When I think about values I think of my father. One of the values he held dear was higher education. A favorite statement of his was “Always go for the higher degree.” Remembering that his telling me that on his deathbed certainly helped me get through my PsyD when the going got rough.

What did he mean by that? Did he mean it earns a person professional development and work opportunities? He got his doctorate when he was in his 70’s, after he had been working for decades. Did he mean it gives a person status? That wasn’t like him. He must have meant it is always good to get educational enrichment. As he reported it, when he was small they didn’t have any toys but just rolled a piece of string to make into a ball and threw it around. With most of his time he read. He walked eight blocks to the public library, took out a bunch of books and read them and then went back the next week to take out some more.

Education meant enlarging one’s self as a thinking person. When he was occupied with his PHD research he had such a good time doing it. He traveled to London and scanned the archives of the library and talked to people there. He talked about his research with people afterward with such relish.

He hated what he called “shtick.” There was an expression in our house called “the New York shtick.” I don’t know what that meant exactly but it wasn’t good.

The message was always “Be honest.” “Be genuine.” Be authentic.” He didn’t put on a role. He didn’t put on a show. He was just himself. Whatever he felt he expressed. He was mostly quiet but when he got excited and enthusiastic about something he would raise his voice. On any occasions he had to speak to an audience I felt pleasure to listening to him, because I could feel his energy and share it.

I’m allergic to dynamic speakers for this reason. I don’t care if the reason why they’re being demonstrative and putting fluctuation in their voice is to make a point. To me, it’s shtick and it turns me off!

This is also how I feel about religious stringency. I believe that religious growth has to show in the intensity of inner fervor, not by adding to the structure by piling on extra stringency. I always go for the leniency. Most of the time the stricter way is going to make people feel religion is harsh and the goal is to beat one’s self up. I am well aware that leniency can also be a sign of apathy.

But then again it can be a sign of deep commitment. This is something I felt in my father. He saw the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish garb of hat and coat as well as all the extra strictness in other areas as shtick. He was very devoted in his religious practice, in a real way.

This is not to say that people should never take on a stringency. It only becomes problematic when it’s done on a societal level. An example of something I am not lenient about is eating before they blow the Shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). If I never eat before praying in the morning, and this is the one day a year that is really supposed to wake us up in a powerful way to be conscious of God’s kingship, am I then going to speak to God in all the prayers that precede it and then just before hearing the Shofar say “Wait a minute. I want to eat something first.”?!

What I’m saying is I accept what I clearly have to do even if it’s not always easy. Those times are an opportunity to realize my commitment. But if I don’t have to do it I don’t. I don’t want to only do what feels good to me, but at the same time I want to feel good about my relationship with God. And when I want to express my devotion in a stronger or more authentic way I do that. As long as it’s true to myself.

So it’s no wonder that when one of the students at the end of last year wanted to give me a compliment and she was struggling with how to put it. She said, “Everyone has some kind of shtick. But you’re…you’re shtickless! That’s what you are!”

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