Back when I lived in Musrara, there was a small makolet on the main street, where I used to get most of my groceries.
I was in that place pretty much every day for four years, and over that time I got to know the makolet guys, and their workers, who ran the place.
One guy, Eden, stuck the job out for years, and right around the time that the teenage boy was having his visions of the coming apocalypse in Israel, he stuck a kippa on his head and started laying tefillin.
I know this, because he’d be ringing up my groceries with his phylacteries stuck to his head, which I know is wrong, but it still struck me as kinda cool.
Then there was the French guy who was fresh out of the army and wrestling with a lot of grudges against God. Sometimes the knitted kippa on his head grew, sometimes it shrank, and then a few months after he got married – it disappeared altogether.
He moved out of the neighborhood shortly afterwards, so I have no idea if it ever grew back.
And then, there was Shimon.
Shimon could have been in his thirties, or maybe even his forties.
By the time I met him, he was a chain-smoking, secret alcoholic who was destined to eventually get fired because he kept forgetting important details like whether he’d already rung up a purchase, or whether someone had already paid.
He stuck it out for two years, steadily deteriorating, and over that time, I got to know him a little. What was left of his blonde hair was cut in an awkward crew cut, and his beer belly was usually perched dangerously on a low-riding pair of jeans that really should have left far more to the imagination.
One day, I went in to get my daily pint of almond milk and I found him looking at a dog-eared photo, with a sad expression on his face.
Was this a dearly departed mum? An old girlfriend that it never worked out with? His childhood pet?
That day, Shimon was in a thoughtful mood, so even though my Hebrew was rubbish and his English wasn’t much better, he started talking as he rang up my pint of milk.
That’s me in the army, he told me, shoving the dog-eared picture into my face.
I’m at the age where I have to move things back a few inches, before they swim into focus, so I took the picture cautiously, and maneuvred it far enough away to actually see it. It was the standard shot of a young man wearing army trousers and displaying his pecs, while sucking on a cigarette and holding a machine gun.
I guess it was kinda ‘cool’, in that superficial, glorifying violence kinda way.
I was in a special unit in the army, Shimon told me, clearly fishing for some compliments for his 20-something self.
I looked at the fat, red-eyed man before me, who was already missing some teeth and I sighed a deep, secret sigh.
No wonder Shimon was steadily drinking his brain cells to death, if that picture represented his best shot at ‘happy times’.
All this took place a few years’ ago, but recently I’ve been thinking again about this whole idea of ‘cool’, and how it’s one of the yetzer’s best ploys for ensnaring our souls in the madness of this world.
‘Cool’ can be so dangerous, precisely because it hides a multitude of sins, while secretly promoting them. ‘Cool’ people smoke. ‘Cool’ people drink lots of alcohol. ‘Cool’ people waste large chunks of their lives in bars and clubs, dancing to stupid, brain-cell destroying music made by other ‘Cool’ people, many of whom are addicted to drugs and pornographic lifestyles.
In so many ways, ‘Cool’ is the anti-thesis of the Torah lifestyle, and of the good middot, and of the calm, good stability that is actually the foundation of a happy life. But which is also, often, totally ‘unCool’.
Until I hit Breslov, which paired massive payot and Rabbenu’s Torah with trance music, I was kind of despairing of finding even a hint of ‘Cool’ in the Torah world.
Because I have to admit, ‘Cool’ still has some attraction for me, still, even though I’m 46 and really should know better.
It’s so, so easy to fall back into the deceptive allure of that world of lies, where ‘Cool’ people spend their days surfing in Eilat, smoking their lungs black and piercing their tongues.
How can learning a blatt of gemara really compete with that? How can I explain to my children that ‘Cool’ has a short-lived shelf-life, and that ‘Cool’ young people are way more likely to end up addicted, poor and alone, eating their hearts out over pictures of themselves looking ‘Cool’ twenty years ago?
If I still lived in Musrara, if that makolet was still there, I’d tell them (and their friends…):
Go take a look at Shimon’s picture, and then see where all that ‘Cool’ lead.
‘Cool’ is poisonous, my precious children. It’s soul-destroying.
If you want to live a truly happy life, be guided by the Torah and channel your urge to be ‘Cool’ into some outrageously long payot and a tendency to talk to God by the beach.
When is Moshiach going to show up, already?
I got the following comments from a reader, who is making some important points, so I’m adding them in here:
I just read your post about Shimon at the makolet and coolness, and I just had to say, maybe Shimon was showing you the photo of himself in the army because that was the last time he did anything that he’s proud of and that he worked hard for. Poor guy.
He got out of the army and spends his days drinking and smoking and working in a makolet. He’s not happy. He’s unmotivated. Probably depressed. The army is a real challenge, especially for a combat soldier, who is under-appreciated and works really hard in generally awful conditions. Any one who did his army service as a combat soldier should be proud of himself, and this Shimon deserves our prayers and compassion and to look for his good points to help him have the strength to do teshuvah and serve Hash-m.
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